When a country joins the European Union, it has to accept the “four freedoms,” namely the free movement of capital, goods, services, and people. This is different from a European treaty that exists independently of the EU: the Schengen agreement.
Signed in 1992, Schengen sought to get rid of border checks within Europe. All but two EU members have signed on (the United Kingdom and Ireland), and three nations (Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania) have agreed to it but have yet to fully allow their citizens free movement. Liechtenstein, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland have joined the Schengen Treaty despite not being members of the European Union. All Americans who have traveled to the EU will have seen the passport check lines differentiating between “EU-EEA-Schengen” and “All passports.”
Signing the Schengen agreement was not a requirement for joining the EU (note Britain and Ireland), but allowing EU citizens to freely move and work in your country is a must if you want to become part of the club. Restrictions do apply to welfare: depending on the nation you move to, you may not be eligible for unemployment or other welfare benefits, even if you’re an EU citizen. However, your national health insurance (if inside the EU) is valid across European borders, including if you’re a student.
But the Schengen agreement has seen harsh criticism in recent years, due to the migrant crisis that’s hit Europe. According to EU rules (called the Dublin agreement), those applying for refugee status need to do so in their countries of entry, which, given the geography, usually means Greece, Spain, and Italy. However, without border checks, migrants who have made it in have then been able to cross the European continent to countries such as Sweden and Germany, which both have been permissive in accepting them and generous with welfare benefits.
Nations such as Hungary have complained that the agreements aren’t being respected, that they’ve had to deal with a large number of people entering who only want to get up north. In response, the EU helped fund a border fence that was supposed to keep away migrants, only for them to be welcomed in by Berlin. You can see how legal confusion arose in this matter. Denmark has made it a habit of closing its border with Germany, which violates the Schengen agreement (in principle, though exceptions can be filed). Copenhagen’s defense is easily put: since nobody seems to care about the rules for migrants outside of the EU, why should they respect the rules inside it?
For a long time, both defending exceptions to the Dublin rules and holding up Schengen as a holy grail was the political consensus in Western Europe. To that end, French President Emmanuel Macron told the Central European nations (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland) that they couldn’t cherry pick when it came to the EU. His argument: you cannot expect Brussels to pay for your road renovations while not respecting its rules.
But in a sudden change of heart (could it have anything to do with the Yellow Vest protests?), Macron now says he believes in a “renegotiation of the Schengen Treaty,” which could possibly make exemptions for some of the countries he initially criticized. His reform could return the EU to a common travel area among its founding nations that excludes those migrants have been more likely to enter through.
Is this a genuine proposal? It’s hard to say. It’s election season in France, and Macron faces stark opposition at home, with Le Pen, the hard left, and the Yellow Vests doing everything they can to derail him. If his party fails this test at the end of the month, it could be an indicator of how the ballots will turn out.
It’s unlikely that voters will buy Macron’s change of mind on free movement. After all, they have more consistently anti-immigration alternatives to choose from.
The Yellow Vests are themselves aligning with different movements. The latest news out of France is that Yellow Vest leader Jean-François Barnaba, who created the “Jaunes et citoyens” (“Yellow and citizens”) list, is allying with Marine Le Pen’s former right-hand man Florian Philippot. Philippot leads “Les Patriotes,” which argues for an exit from the European Union and an abandonment of the euro. As they see it, decreasing purchasing power and pressure on wages is due to rising levels of immigrants.
Macron is likely to face opposition from within his own party and from other European leaders who have made defense of free movement a talking point for years. But one thing is certain: Macron has opened a debate on changing the dynamics of free movement in Europe. His mainstream status will give others cover to question this fundamental principle.
If anti-immigration parties were looking to make their position more mainstream, then “Europe’s savior” just handed it to them.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.