Although the international media has only recently focused on the possible collapse of the so-called Schengen system, which basically eliminated internal borders for the 24 countries that comprise the Schengen zone, trouble has been brewing since early September. Several countries reintroduced, even if temporarily, border controls. And several European politicians, among them the Finnish president and the Slovak foreign minister, expressed their belief that the Schengen system could fall apart as a result of the pressures posed by the migrant crisis. More importantly, both Angela Merkel and the French foreign minister indicated that if there is no common solution to the refugee crisis, the Schengen agreement might have to be scrapped in its present form.
In mid-September politico.hu published an article titled “The Dirty Dozen: 12 People Who Ruined Schengen,” in which Michael Binyon wrote: “It is not Chancellor Angela Merkel who has ruined Schengen — she still insists the measures are temporary. It is nationalists, dictators, criminals, and human traffickers outside Europe who are undermining this rare milestone of integration. Several prominent politicians also have to shoulder the blame, either through ignorance, insouciance, or malign intent.” Among the twelve, right after Bashar al-Assad, was Viktor Orbán.
Of course, the Hungarian government sees the situation differently. Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister claim that in fact it has been Hungary that has been valiantly defending the Schengen borders by following the Dublin agreement to the letter. Of course, this is not an accurate description of Hungary’s actions. Viktor Orbán refuses to support a common EU policy regarding the refugee crisis. At the same time, it is definitely in the interest of Hungary to preserve the Schengen zone, for both psychological and economic reasons.
Yet we hear demands from Western Europe for basic structural changes in the whole Schengen setup. What should we know about Schengen? First of all, it was 30 years ago, in 1985, that five countries–Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg–signed an agreement that established a border-free zone with a view to eventually achieving a borderless European Union. The current crisis and the terrorist attack on Paris threaten this Schengen system. Yesterday the European Commission announced that the Netherlands officially suggested having a discussion about setting up a kind of “mini-Schengen zone” comprising France, Germany, Austria, and the Benelux countries. So, basically, the members that joined the EU in 2004 would be left out of this new mini-Schengen.
Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó immediately expressed their dismay at the very idea. According to Szijjártó, it is offensive that “those countries want to create an inner circle for themselves” who have been criticizing Hungary all along when it is only Hungary that follows the rules of the Schengen agreement. The dissolution of the Schengen zone would cause huge economic damage to Central Europe and Hungary. And they talk about “European solidarity,” he added.
Viktor Orbán at a press conference after his meeting with Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia’s prime minister, also talked about the danger the Schengen zone is facing. He somewhat optimistically announced that “Dublin is dead, but Schengen is alive.” If the Schengen system collapses, “walls can be raised inside the territory of the Union,” which would be a calamity. Strange words coming from someone who built a fence between Slovenia and Hungary, two Schengen nations. Earlier in his usual Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió Orbán was surprisingly reasonable when the reporter expressed her fear of the Schengen system’s immediate collapse and the “European leaders’ twaddle.” He expressed his trust that the problem will surely be solved. My hunch is that Orbán fears the collapse of the Schengen zone and will therefore display a more cooperative attitude. Mind you, as usual, he now wants to create “a new European Union,” which will never materialize.
Meanwhile, at France’s request, an emergency meeting of EU interior and justice ministers was convened. The French government presented a three-page list of demands, which The Guardian got hold of two days ago. The main points of the French proposals were endorsed by the ministers today. These are sensible precautionary measures which, to my surprise, were not on the books until now. The French called for stricter controls at the borders of the Schengen zone that will involve checking even EU citizens coming from outside of the zone. After all, the people who were responsible for the Paris terrorist attacks were EU citizens who could easily return from the Middle East without being checked against a “possible terrorist” list. The ministers endorsed the introduction of a “passenger name record” (PNR) of all people flying inside or outside of the European Union, which will be kept for a year. The French also demanded greater intelligence sharing across the EU. There should be a joint database of suspects with possible terrorist connections. At this point we know little of the details, but I assume in the next few days we will find out more about the introduction of new measures long overdue in Europe.