In supporting a proposed EU strategy for the Schengen area, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has called for more action to be taken to protect the EU’s freedoms and rights in the face of human-rights violations at its external frontiers. The EESC is worried about the reintroduction of internal border controls by some Member States, and strongly deplores the slow progress in fully including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania in the Schengen area.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has welcomed the new EU strategy for the future of the Schengen area put forward by the European Commission. However, it has warned that the EU and Member States are obliged to respect and promote the Charter of fundamental rights in the management of EU and national borders, police and judicial cooperation and migration and asylum policies.
Its call for action made in the opinion on the new strategy adopted at its October plenary session, comes after worrisome reports of fundamental rights violations at the EU’s external borders, which is of deep concern to the EESC.
“We are asking the European Commission and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency to monitor and fix these worrying issues and to follow up on reports of fundamental rights violations without delay,” said the rapporteur of the opinion, Ionuţ Sibian.
The EESC noted that in recent years, the Schengen area has faced some tough challenges to its consistent application. The 2015 refugee crisis exposed shortcomings in the EU’s approach to managing external borders and migration, while the COVID-19 pandemic prompted temporary reinstatements of internal borders. Disruptions to the Schengen area have harmed businesses, workers, border communities and cross-border cooperation.
The EESC stressed that the Commission should regularly and carefully monitor and assess the need for and extent of these reinstatements, taking action when needed.
In the opinion, the Committee also urged the Council to take swift action to end the continued exclusion of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania from the full application of the Schengen treaty.
“People in Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia still do not fully enjoy their rights as EU citizens as they are excluded from the Schengen area. The EESC supports their inclusion. These countries are keen to take part, and Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania already control their external borders in line with the Schengen Borders Code,” Mr Sibian stressed.
The EESC therefore calls for a more detailed roadmap towards their full accession from the European Commission, and for the European Council to accelerate their inclusion in order to enhance the EU’s good operation and security.
The European Commission’s proposed strategy aims to ensure the effective and modern management of the EU’s external borders, to reinforce cooperation for secure internal border-free travel within the Schengen area and improve its governance so as to protect citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms.
The EESC welcomes the proposals for a more integrated approach to managing the EU’s external borders. However, EU solidarity and values are also at risk from non-EU countries that want to exploit the current situation, Mr Sibian added.
He pointed to the 2021 State of the Union address by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in which she stressed the critical importance of agreeing on a common European system for the management of EU external borders, migration and asylum in order to prevent third countries from taking advantage of a lack of unity.
In particular, the EESC would like the Commission to move faster to bring the European Border and Coast Guard Agency into full operation. It also supports the Commission’s proposals for interoperable national border and migration IT systems and for digital visas and travel documents, on the condition that only the necessary information is shared.
This is even more relevant for asylum seekers or when cooperating with non-EU countries. In this area, the EESC believes that the proposed pre-entry screening of migrants is an interesting idea but possibly open to abuse.
Alleged breaches of human rights in border operations are another concern. The recent appointment of a fundamental rights officer at FRONTEX is an important step forward – if the post is properly funded, independent and can ensure accountability. The Committee also calls for the strengthening of the Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights and involvement of organised civil society, via the EESC.
Within the Schengen area, the EESC welcomes Commission proposals for closer security cooperation and data sharing between Member States to limit the need for border controls while, again, noting that fundamental rights must be fully protected, and police and other security agencies be made accountable.
For this reason, the committee questions the emphasis on using scientifically unsound polygraphs and other tools to detect a person’s emotional state. It also fears that more extensive sharing of passenger information, as suggested, could harm citizens’ rights to free movement.
More positively, the EESC sees a common approach to migration (outlined in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum) as an important element in ensuring that the Schengen area functions well. However, it calls for a wider range of ways to enter the EU legally to prevent human trafficking.
Events have shown how necessary it is to coordinate and monitor border decisions to maintain the integrity of the Schengen area and even the internal market itself.
The proposed regular Schengen Forums between Member States on common challenges could be an important route to achieving this goal. These discussions will be most productive if they include the EESC and other organisations and if they are as transparent as possible, with public access to all documents.
In addition, the EESC strongly supports updating the Schengen Borders Code to include lessons from the pandemic. Rules on travel into the EU should be introduced but above all, the code should ensure that internal border checks are only imposed as a very limited measure of last resort.
A more robust Schengen Evaluation Mechanism would also strengthen borderless travel. Fast-track processes to block damaging restrictions, increased synergies with external-border support and enhanced monitoring of human rights are all positive suggestions. However, the mechanism should not be abused for political ends, which is of concern to the EESC.