I vaguely remember that there was a movie titled “The Day After” when I was a kid. Though I never watched the movie, the main imagery of its plot has come back to me in these days: mainly, the bleakness of how the world would look after a nuclear strike. The film depicted the aftermath of a full-scale nuclear war between NATO forces and Warsaw Pact countries.
That’s how we are in a way: deserted streets, confusion, global uncertainty about the future, and the unbelievable, unthinkable and surreal becoming reality by the moment. More than 100,000 cases and around 6,000 deaths have cast a grim shadow across Europe.
The European Union has its roots in the aim of preventing catastrophes, but the “disaster to be prevented” was foreseen to be war — not a virus. But, in just days, the fundamentals of the EU, created over decades, have been undergoing a severe shock test.
The Schengen Agreement has become the first casualty of corona-stricken Europe. Frontiers are back en vogue, and it is likely that they are here to stay even when the Corona Crisis is over.
On March 17, all Schengen area member states approved the plan proposed by the EU Commission, and the final nail on the “temporary” coffin of the Schengen agreement was announced by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel. They explained that all national borders would be closed for a period of 30 days barring all but essential travel.
Michel declared that:
“On the four priorities identified, the first ‘limiting the spread of the virus,’ we endorsed the guidelines proposed by the Commission on border management. We need to ensure passage of medicines, food and goods and our citizens must be able to travel to their home countries. Adequate solutions for cross-border workers will be found. To limit the spread of the virus globally, we agreed to reinforce our external borders by applying a coordinated temporary restriction of non-essential travel to the EU for a period of 30 days, based on the approach proposed by the Commission.”
This may seem to be a temporary emergency measure, but the way Schengen was frozen is startling in itself. According to the Schengen Border Code’s Article 28, the members should send a notification letter to the European Commission and the interior ministers of the EU states to notify them of the suspension of open borders in cases requiring immediate action.
Only 10 out of the 26 Schengen countries bothered to actually observe the protocol and send out the notification letter: Spain, Portugal, Norway (a non-EU Schengen country), Estonia, Lithuania, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Austria had started land border controls, “shedding Schengen” the earliest, introducing land border controls on March 11. The expiry date of the notification was March 21, but Austria did not take the time to send another notification to formally extend the suspension. It just continued on with border checks.
Five of the Schengen countries, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden, Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg, did not introduce border closures. But they hardly need them anyway, as others have already suspended open borders leading to them.
One major player, possibly holding the determination of the post-Angela Merkel European future in its hands, France, was among those who did not even lift a finger to notify the EU Commission and other member states about the decision to introduce border controls. But then, France was the first country to introduce “temporary” Schengen controls on October 31, 2019, citing the persistent terror threat.
In any case, even European citizens will have a difficult time moving across national borders, even if they are seeing family members or gravely ill and in need of medical treatment.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact. But, France was not going to be obeying it anyway — the Corona Crisis turned out to be a useful excuse. Italy and Greece were rescued by the removal of budget caps, but once again, just like in case of Schengen’s stealthy removal, France played a pivotal role. And just as in the case of Schengen, stepping back from the “emergency exception” will not be easy when it comes to the suspension of the European Stability Pact.
“State aid” countering the competitiveness and single market rules are other “emergency exceptions.” The EU had to rubber stamp all the state aid introduced (again) by France, but also by those that joined the bandwagon like Denmark, Germany, Portugal and Italy. Among those countries, only Italy’s state aid to medical manufacturing suppliers could actually qualify prima facie for immediate crisis relief.
“The day after”: the European Union has been bypassed, gnawed at internally not by the coronavirus, but by its own virulent nationalism. Turkey will also be reshaped by this new wave of viral nationalism, but how?