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Schengen and free circulation at the crossroads: lessons for the East African Community?

By Moses Onyango and Jean-Marc Trouille:

Refugees from Somalia wait to register at Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Kenya is a member of the EAC, which is on a path to closer integration reminiscent of the one taken by the EU in the lead up to the Schengen agreement. Photo: Internews Europe (CC 2.0)

Refugees from Somalia wait to register at Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Kenya is a member of the EAC, which is on a path to closer integration reminiscent of the one taken by the EU in the lead up to the Schengen agreement. Photo: Internews Europe (CC 2.0)

In many parts of the world, geopolitics is confronted with two contending trends. On the one hand, numerous countries are engaged in a process of regional economic integration, epitomised by the more advanced model of the European Union (EU), which requires ‘internal’ borders between participating states to become more fluid to facilitate the free circulation of goods, services, capital and labour. On the other, borders are regaining momentum. Inherited from colonisation, the post-war or post-cold war status quo, the validity of these borders is now a moot point. From Ukraine to Iraq, Syria, Mali, South Sudan or Nigeria, old borders are questioned, new demarcation lines appear. In Europe, the large influx of refugees has led to very different approaches across EU member states, with some overtly questioning the Schengen agreement on border-free travel.

Events currently taking place in Europe are of great significance to the East African Community (EAC) and Africa as a whole. Indeed, the EU is not only an important trade and development partner that can potentially provide an alternative to China, it is also a prosperous example of regional economic integration that can serve as an advanced model to African countries involved in a similar regional process. The five EAC member states, in particular, are currently on a path towards regional integration that bears striking resemblance with the process undergone by the EU.

In 1999 Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania signed the EAC Treaty to enhance trade cooperation and political relations. In 2005 a Customs Union was launched, followed in 2010 by a common market with zero internal tariffs. Talks about setting up an East African Currency Union with an EAC-wide Shilling started in 2011. Furthermore, the EAC has its own Legislative Assembly and Court of Justice. Plans to create an East African Tourist Passport are on the way. Establishing a sustainable economic and political bloc in the form of an East African Federation is also high on the EAC agenda. What’s more, in October 2014, the EAC and the EU signed a comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that supports the EAC’s ambitious integration project and gives EAC member states extensive access to the EU Single Market.

Among these many parallels between the European and East African contexts, it is also important to note that the EAC is considering measures to establish free circulation between its five members, at a time when it is facing the challenge of a growing influx of refugees, mainly from Somalia. Before thinking of the feasibility of setting up an East African ‘Schengen’, it is therefore worth looking into the European model of free circulation: its strengths, weaknesses and limitations.

Abolishing borders has been one of the utmost achievements of the European project, and free movement is one of the dynamics of European prosperity. The dismantling of internal borders among Schengen participating countries was backed up by a strengthening of external borders. Article 25 of the agreement allows national authorities to re-establish border controls temporarily in exceptional circumstances, for a period of time limited to ten days, which can be prolonged to two months. The current reintroduction of controls on several internal borders of the EU is therefore not the beginning of the end of the Schengen agreement, but rather a procedure faithful to the letter of the agreement.

It follows that Germany’s reintroduction of border controls in the aftermath of chaotic scenes at train stations and reports of bed shortages at refugee camps is more an attempt to process refugees in a more orderly fashion and better identify those deserving of help than an attack on European principles. This came after Germany reasserted important European values and Europe’s international commitments to host refugees, particularly those coming from war zones.

Despite this, tensions between member states, overwhelmed by the scale of refugees in search of a safe haven, have put Schengen‘s principle of free movement under strain. This has revealed a lack of solidarity towards member states more exposed geographically to the refugee crisis, as well as showing the generosity on the part of Germany, Sweden and a few others. Crucially, the tensions have also revealed very different attitudes from the East and the West towards traditional European values.

The reason why Schengen is questioned today is not Schengen per se, but rather the weakness – or lack – of policies that should have been adopted or consolidated to accompany Schengen and make it work better. Does Europe have a coherent EU asylum policy? No. Does Europe have a European police? No. Is the EU agency Frontex sufficient to guarantee European border management? Clearly not, in view of the human tragedies in the Mediterranean and of the Hungarian reaction to the influx of refugees, to cite only two examples.

By the end of the year the EU Commission will at last propose measures to set up a European corps of border guards to consolidate Frontex, which coordinates cooperation between national border guards on external borders to prevent illegal immigration, terrorist infiltration and human trafficking. But does Europe have a real foreign security and defence policy capable of stabilizing its close neighbourhood? No. Its Eastern and Southern Neighbourhood Policy is a shambles.

Europeans assumed that they would be able to enjoy a common area of freedom, in which people, goods, and labour would circulate freely, whilst keeping most features of their national systems. Today, Schengen is the victim of member states’ lack of a coherent vision. The so-called four freedoms (free circulation of goods, services, capital and labour) can only work efficiently with a set of rules and policies at the supranational level. Inward-looking attitudes will not solve the challenges Europe faces in view of the extent of Africa’s migration potential. In areas where European integration is more advanced, where Europeans share the currency, the market, the freedom to trade, work and travel across this market, full sovereignty belongs in the past. Without sharing more sovereignty, all these envied attributes are threatened by crises such as the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis and the migrant crisis, none of which, surprisingly, Europeans anticipated.

As is often the case in Europe when populists spot imperfections in the way that a new European framework has been designed, Schengen has been presented as a threat to internal security. And yet, to make up for the abolition of internal controls, member states are expected to cooperate in order to maintain a high level of security. First, by exchanging information to fight borderless organised crime and terrorism. Second, by intensifying policy cooperation. Finally, by using the Schengen Information System (SI).

Schengen is by no means a ‘wide open door’ to illegal migrants. Indeed, the Dublin agreements require the country of arrival to register migrants, take fingerprints, and consider their asylum application. But in the wake of vast flows of refugees, this rule has reached its limits. Nonetheless, it is not in the Europeans’ interest to dismantle the Schengen area and the freedom that it provides to EU citizens. Rather, this joint public area has to be managed by joint public action.

What lessons can be drawn by the EAC in the light of European developments? First, that free circulation leads to more wealth and not the opposite. All economists agree on these great advantages, which is in itself exceptional. Second, that an agreement on free circulation implies not only benefits, albeit significant ones, but also constraints in terms of sharing sovereignty in areas hitherto regarded as national prerogatives. Third, that any weakness in the design of the free circulation agreement will, one day, be subject to a random shock that tests its resilience. This happened with the Eurozone. This is now the case with Schengen.

Schengen is currently being challenged, though primarily by populist misrepresentations. It continues to work. But it faces some reluctance among certain member states and is not sufficiently backed up by effective policies. Its long-term survival will depend on EU member states’ ability to consolidate its design and back it up with more integrated policies in the fields of asylum, police and border management, foreign security and defence, particularly with regard to stabilizing the EU’s neighbourhood.

More generally, any step towards integration, whichever area is concerned, requires sharing sovereignty. This will be a substantial challenge. EAC member states would clearly benefit from a system like Schengen, it would potentially bring the shared reward of increased prosperity for each member state and for the region as a whole. But such a system must be accompanied by effective policies, joint public action, and greater integration in terms of shared sovereignty. Otherwise it may end up finding itself in a similar crisis to that faced by the EU today.


Moses Onyango is a Fellow of the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, and Director of the Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. Jean-Marc Trouille is Jean Monnet Professor of European Economic Integration and European Business Management at the University of Bradford School of Management, UK.

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