The last weeks were not easy ones for the European Union: Besides a growing uncertainty about the Greek tragedy, it was mainly the Schengen discussion dominating the headlines. By the beginning of September it became clear, that it would be highly unlikely to reach a compromise regarding the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area in the next Council for Justice and Home Affairs. Although the two countries met the technical requirements, Finland and the Netherlands decided to block their accession – a clear breach of the EU’s own rules.
In such a tense atmosphere, where the Polish presidency still negotiated desperately to find a face-saving solution for everyone, the Commission decided to add even more fuel to the Schengen fire: By announcing their plans to “europeanise” the Schengen framework, they needlessly added another controversial dimension to the debate. Instead of focusing on such a sensitive issue like the finalization of the Schengen area, the member states now had two issues to disagree upon. Timing is obviously not the strength of the European Commission.
Commission: Sometimes self-restraint is the better way to go
Political science books like to define the Commission as the engine of European integration. After the migration flows of the Arab Spring and the problems it revealed within the Schengen area, the Commission was forced to work on a proposal for a reformed agreement. Nobody challenges the role of the Commission in this process, but one might ask why the Commission is so insensitive when it comes to timing, as this is a crucial factor for the implementation and hence success of their agenda.
The Schengen agreement, which was always prone to populist attacks, needs overcautious treatment. With member states – in this case especially Finland and the Netherlands – being already under pressure from their eurosceptic public and parliaments, the Commission unnecessarily exacerbated the conflict with their reform proposal. They must have been aware that such an über-ambitious plan would only be another factor adding to the tensions between the member states.
While there was still no decision on the accession bid of Romania and Bulgaria, the Commission should have stayed out of the Schengen discussion at all. It is pure speculation if there might have been a solution for the Schengen accession deadlock without the Commission’s reform proposal, but it definitely would have helped the member states to focus on the resolution of an already existing and highly symbolic debate. However, the Commission decided to push their own agenda forward instead. By doing so, they – unintentionally or not – added diesel to the petrol running engine of European integration.
Not only European, but also inter-institutional solidarity needed
The Schengen discussion lies at the heart of the European Union, as it embodies not only the freedom of movement, but also asks for European solidarity. Therefore everything must be done to ensure a European consensus on Schengen, which also calls upon the European institutions. What is an ambitious Schengen reform proposal of the Commission worth for, when it is brought forward in times of great political discord, where there is nearly no chance for implementation? It is not only politically doubtful, but also puts more pressure on the member states and hence the Council of Ministers. By doing so, the Commission creates an ever more divided, instead of ever closer Union.
The European institutions are therefore well advised to coordinate their individual needs more closely, which also means to reformulate one’s agenda in consideration of the bigger picture from time to time. This might be particularly hard for the Commission, but it would have made it easier for the member states – at least in the Schengen accession debate – to overcome the current deadlock. Solidarity cannot only be claimed from the member states; the institutions must also exercise it. Otherwise we may have to deal with bizarre incidents like the seizure of Dutch tulips at EU borders more often – and this is not the kind of atmosphere that Europe needs at the moment.