Schengen reform: To unite, or to divide?

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Schengen reform: To unite, or to divide?

It is often said that small things can make a big difference. So it goes for places. Lying at the banks of the Moselle River, in the border triangle of Luxembourg, Germany and France, the tiny village of Schengen with its some 4,800 inhabitants is one of them. It is here that in 1985, the historic Schengen Agreement was signed on a river cruise ship. The EU started sailing in the direction of a border-free Europe.

Navigating through uncertain times

Nearly four decades later, one of the most tangible achievements of European integration is sailing through troubled waters. While debates on the reform of the governance of the Schengen Area had been going on for a while, new challenges arose: the unprecedented travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic from 2020 onwards, the pressure on the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania as a result of large-scale unauthorised movements of third-country nationals encouraged by Belarus in 2021, and finally, the biggest forced displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War triggered by the war in Ukraine.

Against the attempts of several EU Member States to put in place almost permanent internal border controls, the European Court of Justice declared the persisting granting of such short-term controls illegal. It ruled that last April the reintroduction of internal border controls must be limited to six months, even in the face of a serious threat.

In search of a new compass

Already in December last year, the European Commission presented its long-awaited proposal to amend the Schengen Borders Code, which lays down the rules governing controls at the EU’s internal and external borders. The proposal draws the lessons of the pandemic and seeks to ensure strong coordination mechanisms to deal with health threats and threats to internal security and public policy. A second regulation proposes additional measures under the EU asylum and return rules. It aims to clarify how Member States can respond to cases of instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes.

But how can we ensure a better functioning Schengen area and the effective control of the Union's external borders, while defending the freedom of movement as a cornerstone of the European project and respecting human rights? 

One thing is certain: the Socialists have voiced serious concerns on the Commission’s package of proposals, which gives national governments a wider margin of manoeuvre to introduce border controls within the EU. “By using the Schengen rulebook as a migration tool, the Commission’s proposals endanger one of the greatest EU achievements and allow national governments to hijack free movement and use border controls to score political points at home. Free movement is not a political football and we strongly oppose any politicisation of the Schengen area in this way”, warns Birgit Sippel, S&D spokesperson on home affairs.

French Socialist MEP Sylvie Guillaume, who is in charge of the Schengen reform in the European Parliament, also emphasised that My aim is to remove the instrumentalisation of migration from the Schengen Borders Code where it does not belong… The Council also added a problematic element to the definition of instrumentalisation, which includes non-state actors, not only third countries. One might therefore ask whether organisations that provide help to migrants will, for example, fall within the phenomenon of instrumentalization.

Progressive cities and regions on board

The impact of restriction to free movement is huge on cities and regions, first and foremost in border regions, which already suffered the biggest setbacks for cross-border cooperation in the past decades and in particular during the pandemic. According to research from the Association of European Border Regions (AEBR), the implementation of the Schengen Area has been interrupted more than a hundred times in the last fifteen years for diverse reasons, leading in many cross-border regions over Europe to confusion and disruptions

Both Schengen and migration rights must not be compromised in crises. This is the view defended by progressive cities and regions. PES Group member Antje Grotheer, Vice-President of Bremen City Parliament, and who is the rapporteur of the European Committee of the Regions on the new Pact of Migration and Asylum as well as the Schengen reforms, underlines: “We need to limit the impact of internal border checks on border regions. At the same time, when faced with the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes, we need a clear and restrictive definition of the term at European level, leaving no room for misinterpretations, and we should direct our efforts against the governments responsible rather than penalise the people who become victims of such actions.”

Antje Grotheer asks the European Commission to thoroughly review its proposal for a Regulation addressing situations of instrumentalisation in the field of migration and asylum and to revise the Schengen Borders Code accordingly. “The instrumentalisation regulation risks allowing for derogations from uniform EU asylum law and exceeding what is necessary in order to achieve the EU foreign and security policy objective of stopping a third country from instrumentalising migrants”, she warns.

At the same time, she makes a set of concrete proposals about the governance of the Schengen Area, including:

  • better considering the likely disruptive impact on the social and business life of border regions, and including mandatory consultation with local and regional authorities when EU member states impose checks at internal borders;
  • ensuring that border management is efficient, effective and does not harm regions or curtail the right to asylum for migrants, many of whom are minors;
  • putting in place tangible quantitative and qualitative criteria for qualifying a situation as 'instrumentalisation' and only use it if the member state affected is in a position to justify why the nature of such actions puts at risk essential state functions;
  • directing policy measures at the third-country governments responsible for instrumentalisation and not penalise people who become victims of such actions.


Progressive cities and regions know that it is many ordinary people in many small places that can make a difference and will continue to defend Schengen through a coordinated European approach, which respects human rights and the right to asylum, as well as the free movement of persons. But will national governments stand up for a Schengen that unites us, rather than keeps us apart?


© Photo credits: Catalin Pop on Unsplash