Will Refugee Crisis Doom the EU?

Much of the European Union has enjoyed open borders for decades. Now many want to reinstate border checks to block refugees, even if it dooms European unity.

01.28.16 6:55 PM ET

ROME — Europe as we know it may be coming to an end.

Few people under the age of 30 can remember when traveling from Italy to France to Germany and other countries within continental Europe meant a stop at every border for a passport check and customs inspection. But before the so-called Schengen Agreement that melded the union together was enacted in 1995, Europe was like a giant patchwork quilt—without the pieces sewn together.

Back then, each country had multiple sets of border controls on the roads, rail lines, and airports where not-always-friendly border guards raised a wary eyebrow to anyone country hopping. Passports were filled with different stamps from different border crossings, all of which admittedly seems like something out of a vintage movie.

Now, slowly but inexorably, those old borders are coming back, as Europe grapples with the continuing migrant and refugee crisis that saw more than a million people enter the zone in 2015 alone. And as each country rebuilds its fences and suits up its border guards, Europe is coming apart at the seams.

The latest bright idea on the table to deal with the migrant crisis is to suspend the 1995 Schengen Agreement for two years, starting in May. If that idea becomes fact, it would immediately stop the flow of humanity entering the many countries that don’t want the refugees and migrants traipsing through their territory.

Sounds simple perhaps, especially when you consider that most boundaries on the main highways and rail lines still have the ruins of the old border posts in place. But since it has been more than 20 years since most of these border controls were last used (back then the Internet was just a few years old and smart phones were still an item on Steve Jobs’s to-do list), bringing them into the modern era will surely be a tedious affair. And costly: it is estimated that re-creating and staffing the old checkpoints will cost in the tens of billions of euro. “Nobody even wants to tally the overall cost to each member nation if Schengen is suspended, but they would be astronomical,” says Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and vice-president of the European Commission. “Not just for the implementation, but in terms of economic impact on a divided Europe. It would surely cost more than what countries pay to resettle the refugees.”

The plan will certainly work to stop unwanted refugees in countries in northern Europe, but only by effectively bottlenecking them in Greece and Italy, where they enter by sea. More than 40,000 people have already arrived in Greece and Italy this year, according to the International Organization for Migration IOM.

But putting aside for the moment the obvious pressure it would add to the sea border countries where the vast majority of migrants and refugees land, suspending Schengen would also exact a terrible toll on European citizens and all travelers who have become accustomed to effortless travel and free movement once within the confines of the Euro zone.

And taking away Schengen leaves only the shaky euro currency as the common thread holding the fractured union together. Not even a year ago, experts were warning that the single currency was all but doomed. So much for European unity. “If the spirit leaves our hearts, we will lose more than the Schengen,” Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, told the Financial Times. “A single currency does not exist if the Schengen fails.”

European companies that depend on the ease of exporting goods within the Euro Zone warn that border controls might deter businesses since delivery times would most certainly be hindered by red tape. By some estimates, the cost to those companies in having to reinstate customs that go hand-in-hand with border controls would cripple the express delivery system that now zips through the zone. “The loss of this simplification could cost the express industry alone approximately €80 million per annum and at the same time significantly increase the volume of customs processes having to be undertaken,” according to a report by Euro Express (PDF). “Other transport sectors face possibly even greater increased costs with the withdrawal of this simplification.”

Border controls could also greatly impact businesses in border cities from expanding or even hiring other Europeans—even those who live a few kilometers away might have to go through lengthy passport controls to get to and from work.

Consider for a moment all the budget airlines and city hop deals that are now in place across the country. Closed borders within Europe would also create chaos for air traffic and tourism, especially when you consider the budget lines that bank on easy country hops between nations that would, without the Schengen Agreement, have to either use larger and more expensive airports with customs centers already in place, or help build new facilities at pop-up airports that were never intended for international flights. A cheap round trip flight from Rome to Barcelona that now costs less than 50 bucks could triple as cheap airlines bear the brunt of border costs.

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Think about train travel, too, which has become so smooth in the last two decades that most long-haul pan-European travelers don’t even know what country they are traversing. Road travel, too, would be fraught with delays as every car, camper, and semi-truck would have to be stopped so passports and cargo could be checked.

None of that seems to matter.

On Monday, Europe’s interior ministers met in Amsterdam where Klaas Dijkhoff, the Dutch immigration minister, insisted that the European Commission allow the enforcement of border controls and suspension of Schengen to any nation that deemed it necessary for at least two years starting in May. “These measures are inevitable at this point in time,” he said.

On Wednesday, the EU went one step further and blamed Greece for not abiding by the Schengen-set rules on asylum that dictate that migrants entering the country be properly documented and vetted before being allowed to move on into Europe. Greece, which has seen 35,000 migrants and refugees arrive in the first three weeks of 2016—nearly 3,000 a day—shot back that it was being “scapegoated” by Europe for a lack of a coherent policy in dealing with the migration crisis.

Still, the EU warned Greece that it had three months to get in line or its borders could be closed for air and land travel, which many see as a first step in the disintegration of Schengen as a whole. On Wednesday, Anders Ygeman, the Swedish Interior minister, warned that Greece wasn’t doing enough. “If a country doesn’t live up to its obligations, we will have to restrict its connections to the Schengen area,” he said.

Greece, in turn, blamed Turkey for not cooperating to stem the flow of refugees, but that blame fell on deaf ears. The IOM estimates that there are well over 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, with more arriving every day. And they are all heading toward Europe, borders in place or not.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk told Deutsche Welle that the future looks bleak. “We have no more than two months to get things under control,” he said, “or the EU will fail as a political project.” And that failure will have global repercussions.