EESC calls for an open and secure Schengen area

With the threat of war at its doorstep, the Schengen area should be further strengthened through better police and judicial cooperation, with its internal borders kept open

The war in Ukraine, which has caused an unprecedented flow of refugees to seek shelter in the EU, points to an urgent need for effective, humane and humanitarian common European regulations on migration and asylum in an open but equally secure Schengen area, according to a European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)  opinion adopted at its plenary session in May.

The Russian military aggression against Ukraine is a game changer. Historically, it's the greatest threat there has ever been to the functioning of the Schengen area and the security of the EU. The terrible events in Ukraine reaffirm the importance of external border security in the Schengen area and stability as a prerequisite for Europe's internal security, said the rapporteur of the opinion, Krzysztof Balon.

We are in favour of preserving the Schengen area, Mr Balon said, adding that the EESC supported the Commission's position that any border closures between Schengen countries should only be temporary.

In the opinion, which evaluated the Commission's recent package updating the rules governing the Schengen area, the EESC stated that Member States' security concerns would be better addressed by increasing and strengthening cooperation and coordination between law enforcement authorities than by reintroducing controls at internal borders.

This is also less detrimental to the free movement of persons, goods and services, which is an important part of Europe's DNA.

People have built their lives around the freedoms offered by the Schengen area, with 3.5 million people crossing between Schengen Member States every day. The Commission should take a stronger stance in support of borderless travel in Europe, the EESC said.

The opinion puts a strong emphasis on ensuring that the EU and the Member States, when managing borders, migration and asylum, respect the Charter of Fundamental Rights at all times, in particular freedom of movement and residence as well as the right to asylum, and the principle of non-refoulement. The same applies to all instances of police and judicial cooperation between Member States.

In this regard, the Committee welcomed the establishment of an informal expert group which would monitor the application of the Directive on information exchange between the law enforcement authorities of Member States and asked for civil society organisations, including itself, to be included in the expert group's work.

It also stressed that, despite the important role played by Member States at the external borders, they were unable to protect the Schengen borders alone. This is why the EESC calls upon the Member States to proactively support the solidarity mechanism and share responsibility for migration management, in line with the provisions of the New Pact for Asylum and Migration.

Solidarity mechanisms could be developed among the Member States on the basis of the Temporary Protection Directive, which has just been activated in the context of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and of which the EESC is highly appreciative. In its view, the Commission should consider implementing the Temporary Protection Directive for non-EU nationals in future severe and urgent crisis situations.

The EESC also repeated its concern about the continued exclusion of Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus from the Schengen area and sided with the Commission in calling for swift and decisive action from the Council to change that.

The opinion on Security Union package/Schengen package focused on four proposals from the Commission's package from December 2021, which made several updates to the rules governing the Schengen area. These proposals are the Directive on information exchange between the law enforcement authorities of Member States, the Regulation on automated data exchange for police cooperation, the Regulation addressing situations of instrumentalisation in the field of migration and asylum and the Regulation amending the Union Code on the rules governing the movement of persons across borders.

The EESC voiced concern over several issues in the proposals, such as the risk of influencing digital data exchange given the recent chaotic and non-transparent war situation in Europe.

It said it viewed the proposal for a self-evident establishment of national databases for facial images and the exchange of these images between participating Member States with great anxiety. It therefore called for proportionality and confidentiality to be scrutinised at a high level in terms of protecting personal data and said that the application of facial profiling could be considered to be optional.

It is also worried about the proposal to exchange police records between all Member States as they have different criteria for defining a serious crime and criminal suspects, which may lead to violation of refugee rights.