VISEGRAD: Central Europe blasts idea of 'mini-Schengen'

VISEGRAD: Central Europe blasts idea of 'mini-Schengen'
By Tim Gosling November 20, 2015

Visegrad has reacted with alarm and fury to reports that the idea of a "mini-Schengen" has been discussed by five Western European nations. That was probably the whole point.

While Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia perhaps have the most to lose from any breakdown of the EU’s passport-free zone thanks to their exceedingly high dependence on exports to their neighbours, they have been swatting aside criticism that their words and actions during the migrant crisis have been putting the Schengen Agreement in danger. However, their eyes will now be firmly fixed on it,

The Dutch press reported on November 18 that five EU states – Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – have talked about creating a “mini-Schengen” between themselves, and plan to present it at an EU interior ministers meeting on November 20. The aim would apparently be to improve checks on arriving asylum seekers. However, it seems more likely that the talks are meant as a warning to other member states that EU policy must remain unified.

While the European Commission said it had no knowledge of the talks, Dutch officials confirmed the topic had been broached. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere also acknowledged talks had taken place, but added: “Our political goal must be that the Schengen area as a whole functions.”

Despite the denials in Brussels, the unwieldy EU – battered over the past several years by a seemingly unending series of crises – is clearly lurching closer to a crunch point. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, only spoke on November 19 of a “two-speed Europe” – an idea that has previously been treated as sacrilege by the EU core. The threat of tearing up the Schengen treaty may be viewed as strong enough to pull many member states back into line.

The unthinkable

Ruse or not, the suggestion that the wider Schengen system could be shuttered certainly grabbed the attention of the Visegrad states that have been so outspoken over recent EU policy on migrants. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto blasted the talks on November 20, claiming “Hungary is the only country that obeys Schengen rules”, but now some are considering an “inbred ... mini-Schengen”.

“There is no such topic on the schedule of the interior and justice ministers council,” the Slovak Interior Ministry insisted in a statement. “We think that this proposal is dangerous because it could lead to cancelling of one of the basic rights, which is free movement of persons within the EU.”

The reaction is no surprise. The small and open economies of Central Europe are hugely dependent on exports to fellow EU states – and Germany in particular. Slovak exports equalled 92% of GDP last year, according to the World Bank. Over 80% of exports from Slovakia – which has led a furious backlash against the EU’s ‘open-door’ policy on the migrant crisis – head to the EU, with the Czech Republic and Hungary similarly dependent on shipping goods easily and quickly around the bloc. The supply chain for German industry constitutes a huge chunk of that demand.

However, while the four Central European EU members are understandably aghast at any suggestion that the border-free system could be altered, they have been at the forefront of the issues that have helped put the previously unthinkable on the table: the potential reversal of Schengen.

On the frontline of the migrant crisis, Hungary did much to start the ball rolling on discussion of the fate of Schengen in July, when it began building a fence on its border with non-EU Serbia. It has since also erected a barrier on the border with fellow EU state Croatia. The diverted refugee flow put pressure on other states, while the likes of Austria and Germany – the ultimate target for many of the migrants – have established some limited border controls in a bid to retain some administrative oversight over those arriving.

Meanwhile, Slovakia and Hungary have said they will launch legal battles against the EU’s scheme for quotas to help redistribute arriving migrants across the bloc. Poland’s new nationalist government has also made noises suggesting it will seek to bow out of the plan.

Statements by French officials that the suspected mastermind of the Paris atrocity, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, used the chaos of the refugee crisis as cover to re-enter Europe has, however, reignited claims that terrorists could be hiding among the migrants to infiltrate Europe, despite there being little evidence. That has resurrected calls for the EU to lock down Schengen’s external borders. However, that would likely involve finding huge resources, and imposing non-native forces on frontline states such as Greece, Italy and Hungary. 

Scared into line

Given that, reports of “mini-Schengen” talks seem more likely to be a bid to scare the likes of the Visegrad nations into line on the migrant crisis. Any implementation of a “mini-Schengen” could be a jolt that splits the entire European project – which is the last thing the likes of Berlin would want to see.

Indeed, Brussels is well aware of Central Europe’s Achilles’ heel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed in the summer that she could raise the issue of the passport-free area should members fail to take in more refugees. “If we cannot make a fair allocation system, then we have to talk about the future of Schengen,” she warned.

The threat of a “mini-Schengen” accompanies moves towards allaying some of the fears of member states. EU interior ministers are reportedly set to agree on November 20 to tighten checks at Schengen’s external borders, including on EU citizens, at the Brussels summit.

Before the horror in Paris on November 13, Visegrad states had led the calls for Brussels to tighten the external Schengen border, and even to take control of it in Greece. Some sources suggest the “mini-Schengen” talk is aimed at putting pressure on Italy and Greece to do more to process those arriving on their shores, according to Politico Europe.

“We discuss Schengen and how the current extra burden through the refugee crisis can be relieved,” an unnamed diplomatic source close to the five nation talks told Politico Europe. “This had already started before the Paris attacks. The group also discusses how the [EU’s] external borders can be better protected.”