Written by Avilia Zavarella

In the last few days, a new phrase appeared on Italian social media pages: “poi vorrei” – “after, I would like…” 

It is a phrase of hope, hinting at the post-COVID emergency, which opens up a world of possibilities. It is a way for people to keep afloat in these unprecedented times, to make plans, to express wishes, to say what they would like to do “after,” when life – hopefully – goes back to what it was before. So when I saw this new hashtag, #poivorrei, my mind also automatically jumped to complete the sentence. What is it that I “poi vorrei”?

My first answer was: #poivorrei exercise and enjoy my EU citizen right of travelling and moving freely within my continent. Visit my family in Italy, my friends in Hungary, go on holiday in France. And do that, with no more effort than blinking.

As of now, however, this looks like an impossible dream – or, at least, a very unlikely one.

For the first time since the beginning of the Schengen project, Schengen has been de facto suspended. Not only all its external borders have been closed, but, crucially, its internal borders have also been reintroduced to a degree that never had been witnessed in the history of the project. 17 countries of the 26 Schengen Members have so far notified the Commission of their border closures as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing article 25 and 28 of the Schengen Border Code, [1] after the Commission specified in its guidelines that “in an extremely critical situation, a Member State can identify a need to reintroduce border controls as a reaction to the risk posed by a contagious disease.” [2]

The decision came only days before the 26th of March, a day marking the 25th birthday of the Schengen Agreement. The Agreement, in fact, came into effect for the first time on that same day in 1995, ten years after it was signed by the five pioneer countries –  France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – in the little riverside village of Schengen, Luxembourg. Through this revolutionary Agreement, these five nations, then progressively joined by other 21 European countries, decided to open their borders to each other, allowing their people to move freely between them. This decision was the beginning of a revolution in Europe, marking the start of an era of increased integration that would allow old and new generations to finally experience the real meaning of European identity. 

However, 25 years later we did not spend the 26th of March, celebrating this incredible achievement. Instead, the official EU celebrations were cancelled, replaced by a largely-gone-unnoticed and quite shallow statement by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, [3] and the day passed by among gloomy feelings and war-like bulletins reporting COVID-19 daily deaths. 

What does this say about us, about Europe? Our sense of European belonging, about the project itself?

A few weeks ago, a letter was signed by many Members of the European Parliament and national members of parliament condemning border closures and calling for European solidarity. If the virus knows no borders – says the letter – how can our response to the pandemic have borders? [4] 

Luxembourg’s Foreign and European Affairs Minister also expressed his disapproval for the decision taken by most Schengen countries, stating that “we need solidarity more than ever, and the rules of the Schengen area provide the framework for cooperation which will enable us to face this unprecedented challenge together.” [5] Similarly, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was one of the first to reject the idea of reintroducing border controls due to COVID-19 [6] and French President Macron went as far as to state that “the risk we are facing is the death of Schengen” [7] – although he later asked for the border controls that were already in place in France for the terrorism threat to be extended until October 2020 in light of the COVID pandemic. 

Certainly, the suspension of Schengen is meant to be only temporary. In the latest document published by the Commission – which presents a roadmap for European countries to jointly lift COVID containment measures – it is said that “the travel restrictions and border controls currently applied should be lifted once the border regions’ epidemiological situation converges sufficiently and social distancing rules are widely and responsibly applied.” When and who will decide whether and when that will happen, however, remains to be seen. 

What is instead certain is that the mark left by the decision of effectively suspending free circulation within the Schengen Area will not be easily overcome, and this is true both practically and symbolically. Practically, as countries seem to have the unhealthy habit of being reluctant to loosen back control once they found a chance to retain it. [9] The 2015/16 migrant crisis and the related security concerns raised by Member States as a consequence of it, for instance, meant the reintroduction of internal border controls in six EU countries – Germany, France, Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. These are still in place today on the same grounds – although the number of arrivals has now returned to pre-2015 levels, and the European Parliament has more than once raised concerns about the lawfulness of the situation [10] – which effectively means that the Schengen control-free zone has not been fully operational for five years already. This historical example alone suggests that there may be unforeseen delays to a return to fully-fledged free movement when the COVID emergency is over.

But this return to hard borders will also leave a different, symbolic mark, this time in our collective memory, and, again, it won’t be a positive one. In a moment like the present one, when a crisis is underway, while EU institutions have struggled to keep unity and promote a common response, European neighbouring countries have instead once again failed to present a common front, preferring to respond to a common problem with national solutions, choosing isolationism over solidarity and collaboration, and only resorting to the latter if repeatedly prompted. COVID-driven lockdown measures have already been in place for weeks in most European countries, preventing people from leaving their homes if not for strict necessities. Food, health, “essential” work – these are the only government-sanctioned reasons which allow people to set foot outside, with only a few more relaxed nations permitting to go out for physical exercise. Movement between towns, let alone between regions, has become just a rare and exceptional occurrence. In such a landscape, where “leisure” travel is already in all effects prohibited, was it really necessary to also implement Europe-wide, mass-scale border closures? Wouldn’t it have made more sense, if for nothing else, then at least symbolically, to keep Schengen open?

Schengen has always been a project of freedom, of community, a place of collective European identity and solidarity. Its suspension represents the latest gesture of negation of such values, a sign that, when times get tough, we do not toughen up together. Instead, we choose to weaken each other, by quite literally locking each other up and leaving each to their own misery. 

Of course, of reasons to keep open borders in Europe that extend beyond symbolism and values, we have plenty.

From a purely scientific point of view, there were no solid empirical grounds to justify border closures. In fact, a recent study investigating the effect of travel restrictions on the spread of COVID-19 in China has shown that, as the virus had already spread to other cities before a travel ban was imposed in Wuhan, the Wuhan travel restrictions did not help to stop the spread of the virus, but only to delay it, and even so only marginally, by just 2 or 3 days. [11] Arguably, a similar situation may have occurred in the Schengen Area, as most European countries had already registered several coronavirus cases when they first started reintroducing internal border controls in March, thus closing the Schengen borders probably had and has little impact on countries’ abilities to control the pandemic. 

But if scientific reasons for an open-border policy are too dry, then let’s also consider that, like the poet John Donne said, “no man is an island”, and that is true of countries, too. Especially now, in the era of globalisation, and especially in Europe, where we took the deliberate decision a few decades ago to become one, one union, and one people. 

According to the latest available data, 1.5 million people in the EU belong to the category of cross-border workers, that is people who work in one EU country but reside in another. [12] For these, the Commission had to quickly issue special guidelines to guarantee their smooth passage across nations, in effect exonerating them from COVID-driven border controls. [13] Millions more people live and work in a different EU country than that they were born in, while their friends and family live on the other side of the continent. Of these, many would today be considered as belonging to the “key” or “crucial” worker category – being employed primarily in sectors like wholesale, construction, health and social work in their host EU country. [14] The European Parliament also estimated in a 2016 study that a non-Schengen scenario would have an enormous economic impact on our lives and countries, costing commuters and other travellers between €1.3 and €5.2 billion per year in terms of time lost, and resulting in an overall loss of between €5 and €18 billion per year (depending on region, sector and alternative trade channels). [15] 

If there is anything at all that these numbers, these people, suggest, is that we are fundamentally dependent on each other, whether we decide to acknowledge it or not. 

Keeping Schengen open would have meant acknowledging and cherishing this simple fact, deciding to sit down together and figuring out how to face the present challenge by using the common human and practical resources that the very existence of Schengen allows us to have and to share.

Instead, our European nations chose to go each in a different direction. We were weak, where we should have been strong and united, and we treated each other like threats rather than allies.

This is not my Europe; it is not the Europe I want. My Europe is free, liberal, democratic. And it is a community able to stand up and face common challenges through solidarity and collaboration, a place full of bridges rather than walls.

So maybe I will change my initial wish. Or expand it, rather. I do not just wish we were all able to travel freely within our Europe. No. 

In truth, what I #poivorrei is a united Europe, but for real. 


References

[1] Temporary Reintroduction of Border Control – Migration and Home Affairs – European Commission. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/schengen/reintroduction-border-control_en 

[2European Commission. (2020). COVID-19: Commission presents guidelines for border measures to protect health and keep goods and essential services available. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_468 

[3] Johansson, Y. (2020). Statement on Schengen 25th anniversary. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/johansson/blog/statement-schengen-25th-anniversary_en 

[4] InsiemeTogether – A Call For European Solidarity In Difficult Times. (2020). Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://neweuropeans.net/insiemetogether-call-european-solidarity-difficult-times 

[5] Declaration by Jean Asselborn on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the Schengen Agreements. (2020). Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://maee.gouvernement.lu/en/actualites.gouvernement%2Ben%2Bactualites%2Btoutes_actualites%2Bcommuniques%2B2020%2B03-mars%2B25-asselborn-schengen.html 

[6] Italy loath to suspend Schengen despite coronavirus cases soar. (2020). Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/italy-loath-to-suspend-schengen-despite-coronavirus-cases-soar/ 

[7] Macron to EU Leaders: We Are Facing the Death of Schengen – SchengenVisaInfo.com. (2020). Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/news/macron-to-eu-leaders-we-are-facing-the-death-of-schengen/ 

[8] European Commission. (2020). A European roadmap to lifting coronavirus containment measures. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/european-roadmap-lifting-coronavirus-containment-measures_en 

[9] De Somer, M. (2020). Chapter 9: Schengen and internal border controls. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://www.epc.eu/en/Publications/~2e1cb0 

[10] Montaldo, S. (2020). The COVID-19 Emergency and the Reintroduction of Internal Border Controls in the Schengen Area: Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from http://www.europeanpapers.eu/en/europeanforum/covid-19-emergency-and-reintroduction-internal-border-controls-schengen-area 

[11] Chinazzi, M., David, J., Ajelli, M., Gioannini, C., Litvinova, M., & Merler, S. et al. (2020). The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Science, 368(6489). doi: 10.1126/science.aba9757 

[12] European Commission. (2020). Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion – 2019 Annual report on intra-EU labour mobility. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=738&langId=en&pubId=8242&furtherPubs=yes 

[13] Baudelet, O. (2020). COVID-19 and frontier workers. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/futurium/en/employment/covid-19-and-frontier-workers 

[14] European Commission. (2020). Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion – 2019 Annual report on intra-EU labour mobility. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=738&langId=en&pubId=8242&furtherPubs=yes 

[15] European Parliamentary Research Service. (2016). Cost of non-Schengen: the impact of border controls within Schengen on the Single Market. European Parliament.