The EU faces a challenge. The fallout from the 2015 migration crisis continues to impact on the bloc and the response to the populist waves of concern in many member states has led to confusion as to how the Schengen Agreement is being implemented.
The Schengen Agreement led to the creation of Europe’s Schengen Area in which border checks were abolished. This is a cornerstone of the EU’s principle of the free movement of people established under the Treaty of Rome and consists of 26 European countries with a combined population of 400 million people. Only Ireland and the United Kingdom opted out of the final implementation of the treaty when it was signed into law in 1999.
As the EU struggled to stem the flow of migrants in the wake of the Arab Spring (which led to the demise of the dictatorial regimes which had previously served as quasi border guards to the Union) so individual states such as Italy faced a large influx of people feeling the civil war in Syria.
The resulting political internal turmoil in certain member states had led to a surge in populist anti-immigration policies, not least of which was the result of the UK referendum to leave the EU.
Two states in particular have effectively left the Schengen Area; Hungary and Austria. This is permitted under EU law when public order or internal security are under threat, but when the European Commission expressed its hope to see the Schengen Area re-integrated by May 2017 at the latest, it fell on deaf ears. Hungary is in the process of building a physical wall, 4 metres high and 175 km long on its border with Serbia. In April France re-introduced border checks in response to the threat from continued terrorist attacks.
Statistics on how many EU citizens cross these internal borders without checks are understandably hard to come by, but 2010 research estimated that roughly 12.6 million people cross European borders each week, 73% of whom are EU citizens. 15% are nationals from other countries who do not require visas and 11% are people who do require a visa to travel to the bloc.
In early July German interior minister Horst Seehofer met with leaders of the Austrian government in reaction to the centre right chancellor, Sebastian Kurz’s warning that his government will increase border controls, even mooting the closure of the Italian border at the Brenner Pass. Should this happen, the Schengen area in its entirety will be under threat.
At the base of this populist anxiety is the asylum issue. The Visegrad Four – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – have refused to take in asylum seekers under any EU plan. Austria, which has just taken the rotating presidency of the bloc, wants a “coalition of the willing”, a radical plan to force most refugees to file asylum applications outside the EU. This refusal places the EU in a very difficult position.
How does all of this affect mobility? Potentially, it will make smooth migration of skilled workers more complex. The free movement of people is a cornerstone of effective and essential talent movement and management. The UK is grappling with how far it will need to extend its tier 2 skilled workers visa programme after it leaves the EU next year. The current cap on tier 2 is 20,700 and currently only applies to nationals from outside the EU. Currently around 3.8 million people living in the UK are citizens of another EU country. In 2017, 240,000 people immigrated into the UK from other EU states. The tier 2 cap is going to have to be substantially raised if EU citizens are denied free movement to the UK in the event of a “hard Brexit”.
Extend this basic data to a non-Schengen EU and the scale of the issue facing the Commission becomes clear. For corporations, the potential immigration challenges they face will get more complex. For mobility professionals, the volume of work especially in immigration compliance, looks set only to increase.