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ECAS Highlight of the Week – A Story of Freedom of Movement

13 November 2020

“Open the barrier!” ordered border guard Harald Jäger on the evening of November 9th, 1989. What followed these three words were thousands of people crossing over from East into West Germany. And no further words were needed – only the emotion of the people celebrating and crying could have captured the magnitude of what was happening.

Few other single events can match the change unlocked by the fall of the Berlin Wall. It ended the Cold War, triggered the fall of the Soviet Union (1991), unified East and West Germany, and began a new chapter of European history. Essentially, a border was chipped away brick by brick, paving way for freedom to move without political barriers.

Travel restrictions are a signature move of past repressive regimes, as they allowed for the ideology that individuals are “objects” owned by the government that have to stay put and work only for the advancement of the interests of the state. This illustrates the power of this freedom – both when able to exercise it, and when taken away in order to carry out an agenda. Nowadays, we appreciate it for the benefits it brings, but back then restricting it was used as a tool to ensure obedience to a government.

The marking of 31 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall this week is an opportunity to reflect on the above. Though freedom of movement is now a fundamental right of EU citizens, we have recently been again reminded that this freedom is fragile – where is the line that ‘justifies’ its repression drawn at? The Covid-19 pandemic has set it at “health protection”. The call made last week by French president Emmanuel Macron to reform the Schengen area reinforced “security” as another justification.

The call was made in response to terrorist attacks carried out in France by migrants who entered the country by being able to freely move between Schengen Member States. Specifically, the made request is to strengthen EU border security and the integration of rules, with further proposals to be detailed at the next EU summit in December.

In the meantime, France plans to double the number of police patrolling its borders from 2,400 to 4,800. The country has already been conducting border checks since the terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in 2015, under an authorised exception to the Schengen rule stating that if there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security, a Schengen country may exceptionally temporarily reintroduce border control at its internal borders for, in principle, a limited period of no more than thirty days.

Addressing the public after his announcement, President Macron concluded that “réformer Schengen c’est permettre la liberté en sécurité“, translating to “reforming Schengen means safely allowing this freedom”. A sufficient argument. But given the importance and weight freedom of movement carries, even reasons that justify restrictions or reforms need to be closely scrutinised so that prejudiced limitations do not follow.


Background: Freedom of Movement in the EU

The free movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU to its citizens. It enables every EU citizen to travel, work and live in any EU country without special formalities. Schengen cooperation enhances this freedom by enabling citizens to cross internal borders without being subjected to border checks. The border-free Schengen Area guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens, as well as to many non-EU nationals, businessmen, tourists or other persons legally present on the EU territory.

Originally, the concept of free movement was to enable the European working population to freely travel and settle in any EU State, but it fell short of abolishing border controls within the Union. A break-through came in 1985 when cooperation between individual governments led to the signing, in Schengen (a small village in Luxembourg), of the Agreement on the gradual abolition of checks at common borders, followed by the signing in 1990 of the Convention implementing that Agreement. The implementation of the Schengen Agreements started in 1995, initially involving seven EU States. Born as an intergovernmental initiative, the developments brought about by the Schengen Agreements have now been incorporated into the body of rules governing the EU. Today, the Schengen Area consists of 22 of the 27 EU States, excluding Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania. However, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are currently in the process of joining the Schengen Area. Of non-EU States, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have joined the Schengen Area.

Source: European Commission (details can be accessed here).