BRUSSELS — Bruised by haphazard pandemic border controls and an ongoing crisis with Belarus over migrants on its eastern frontier, the European Union is proposing changes that could chip away at one of its crowning achievements — the unfettered movement of people within the bloc.
Under new rules proposed by the European Union on Tuesday, member states could introduce border checks whenever they wanted, in the face of both unforeseen and foreseeable events. They would then be able to extend them almost indefinitely, although such checks were once emergency measures within what is supposed to be a borderless area.
Member states would also be able to suspend some protections for asylum seekers if neighboring countries orchestrate migratory flows to the bloc’s borders, as Belarus has done in recent months to member countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Put together, the proposed changes — which still need to be approved by national governments and the European Parliament, which could take many months — would recast the way the world’s biggest passport-free region functions. They are expected to face heated debate in the European Parliament.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, which put forward the proposals on Tuesday, said the changes would help member countries better respond to serious troubles stemming from migration and the pandemic.
“The refugee crisis of 2015, the spate of terrorists attacks on European soil and the global Covid-19 pandemic have all put the Schengen area under strain,” said Margaritis Schinas, the commission’s vice president, referring to the passport-free zone that includes most E.U. members and a handful of other European countries.
Many agree that the rules governing the passport-free zone need to be reformed. But critics and analysts argue that in pushing forward Tuesday’s proposals, the European Union will scale back one of its main achievements, the freedom of movement of people and goods that for many encapsulate the essence of the European project. The changes also represent, critics say, significant cuts to humanitarian protections.
Read More on the Belarus-Poland Border Crisis
In March 2020, as the pandemic took hold, E.U. countries re-erected border checks that had long been eliminated, closing themselves off from each other in an uncoordinated away that disrupted the bloc’s internal market, its supply chains and the movement of people.
“There was an immediate return to national borders and national way of thinking, as opposed to a European and unified approach, which one would have expected after decades of working together in a borderless area,” said Marie De Somer, a senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center.
The commission’s plan tries to prevent such hasty, ill-coordinated moves. Under the proposed rules, member states would face more scrutiny when justifying the need for border controls.
But Ylva Johansson, the commissioner for home affairs, said Tuesday that a cap of two years on border controls could also be extended. “You never know that a threat is only through two years,” she said. “It could also be longer.”
Tanja Fajon, a left-wing Slovenian lawmaker in the European Parliament, said the new rules risked eroding fundamental rights for migrants, including the right to asylum. “We are moving forward with more restrictive rules, which is not at all the original idea of Schengen,” Ms. Fajon said.
And Tineke Strik, a green Dutch lawmaker in the European Parliament, said provisions controlling the movement of migrants without authorization to be in the bloc could increase the risks of racial profiling.
The bloc has grappled with devising a common approach to migration since the 2015 refugee crisis, when over a million people, mainly Syrians, sought asylum in the European Union. Internal divisions over how to divide and process asylum applications weakened the E.U.’s position, critics say, enabling countries just outside the bloc, like Turkey, Morocco or more recently Belarus, to use migrants and asylum seekers as leverage against European countries.
The crisis at the Poland-Belarus border, however, brought something new: a united stance from E.U. states, which supported Poland in its tough response to the migrants at its border. Polish border guards responded with water cannons and pushed migrants back across the border, rights groups say, prompting little reaction from fellow member states.
Now, some European leaders see the European Union as a fortress being attacked from various places outside. Tuesday’s proposals represent a major victory for countries like Greece and Cyprus, which claim Turkey has used migrants as weapons, and Spain, which has accused Morocco of engaging in similar behavior.
Reforms to the Schengen area, which comprises 26 countries, are also priority of France, which begins its presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1.
Almost 1.7 million people live in one Schengen country and work in another, while an estimated 3.5 million people cross an internal border every day. Undermining the passport-free area would not only be a political risk, but could also have enormous economic consequences for the bloc, said Ms. Fajon, the Slovenian lawmaker.
Six countries, including France, Austria and Germany have had supposedly temporary internal border checks in place for years, on the grounds of health emergency, terrorist threats, or movements of “irregular” migrants — those who have not been granted asylum or other permission to travel — between member nations. The new proposal would de facto enable all national governments to maintain internal border controls indefinitely.
Under the new rules, member states facing an “instrumentalization of migration” at their border will also be able to extend surveillance, including with drones and movement sensors; process most asylum requests directly at the border; and extend the registration period for asylum applications from 10 days to four weeks.
The commission proposed similar measures earlier this month for countries neighboring Belarus — Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
The new rules could be triggered when a country bordering the European Union is found to be “artificially creating and facilitating irregular migration, using migratory flows as a tool for political purposes, to destabilize the European Union and its member states.”
Ms. Strik, the lawmaker from the Netherlands, said the definition was “very vague” and could be invoked too easily. “I can already see the Greek government saying: ‘The Turks are doing the same thing to us,’” she said.
To Ms. Fajon, the Slovenian lawmaker, the principle of a borderless zone is being held hostage to a failure to create a common migration policy. “We are in a vicious cycle,” she said.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting.