pro Europe - Austrian Embassy Series: "Europe without Borders - will the dream last?"
THE FUTURE OF SCHENGEN AND VISA FREEDOM IN EUROPE
Gerald Knaus Chairman, European Stability Initiative
Hugo Brady Centre for European Reform
Thursday, 15 November 2012
Gerald Knaus from Austria and head of the European Stability Initiative emphasised that in order to get the balance between mobility and security for their citizens right, Schengen states needed to build trust between each other. This applied to the top political level as well as police and border forces. It took a long time to take root (the Schengen treaty was signed as early as 1985) – but eventually led to 16,500km of borders in Europe becoming obsolete. The experience of building trust in your neighbouring country to guard your own borders and gain visa freedom can be repeated: in 1991 it was Poland with Germany (Poland signed a readmission agreement, and received visa freedom in turn); recently the European Commission’s “roadmap” approach to Western Balkans countries eventually spurned similar reforms on document security and human rights which made visa freedom to Europe possible for all those countries by 2011. The recent surge in asylum claims from the Western Balkans in 2012 affected only a few countries: Germany, Belgium Schweden, not e.g. Austria, Finland or Switzerland. Why? Because the latter have much quicker asylum procedures, so it does not pay for asylum claimants to travel there in hope of receiving benefits. (A recent judgment by Germany’s constitutional court has also raised those benefits threefold). In addition, countries like Austria and Switzerland use a “country of safe origin” assumption for Western Balkans countries (which expediates asylum procedures). Knaus argued that the European Commission should urge other member states to follow this approach too. The Western Balkans visa liberalisation discussion also has repercussions on Moldova where the visa issue is at the forefront for the current government. Knaus concluded that Schengen lastly worked because member states see it in their own self-interest. This is why it would continue to work in the future. Gerald Knaus stressed the importance of credible visa liberalisation discussions with Turkey to help cooperation and reduce illegal immigration via Turkey into the Schengen area.
Hugo Brady from the Centre for European Reform pointed to the growing importance of Justice and Home Affairs in EU legislation: it makes up only 3% of the of the acquis at the moment, but 20% of new proposals from the Commission! Public immigration scares were a constant in modern history since Shakespeare, and the recent frights about the future of Schengen were no exception.
Austrian Ambassador Emil Brix, hosting the event, underlined that – despite the recent discussions about qualifying visa freedom from Southeast Europe to the Schengen zone – Austria continued to support visa-free travel from the Western Balkans. It was an important milestone in their long-term integration to Europe. Asylum abuse from that region is low in Austria. But Austria recognised that other states are having problems, so of course supports EU measures at preventing and combating abuse. For the Schengen area proper, Ambassador Brix stated that freedom of movement was a crucial achievement of the EU and which Austria wanted to maintain. However, governance could be improved and in extreme cases of public order and internal security threats member states must have the rights to re-introduce border controls for a limited period. This decision, Ambassador Brix said, should be left to member states, he saw no central role for the European Commission in this.
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PRO EUROPE is an initiative of the Austrian Embassy in London for discussing European affairs. Its mission is to provide an informal platform for connecting international scholarly and political expertise on European issues, which are relevant for the UK and other European countries, and to discuss international perspectives through scholarship and engagement with practitioners and decision-makers on why governments should be assertive about Europe.
“No European state in the 21st century can lastingly and successfully advocate its interests in the world alone. The major challenges of our modern societies know no borders.”
(Michael Spindelegger, Austrian Foreign Minister)