Migrant Crisis Strains European Union's Schengen Agreement NPR's Ari Shapiro interviews Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution about the agreement, which enables passport-free movement between member states.

Migrant Crisis Strains European Union's Schengen Agreement

Migrant Crisis Strains European Union's Schengen Agreement

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NPR's Ari Shapiro interviews Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution about the agreement, which enables passport-free movement between member states. Some countries recently reimposed border controls to stem the flow of migrants.


Before there was the modern European Union, before the euro did away with the Deutsche mark and the franc and the lira, there was the Schengen Agreement.


West Germany signed it along with Belgium, France Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1985. The agreement was widened, implement a decade later and is now a cornerstone of European culture and identity. The migrant crisis has strained it.

SHAPIRO: Constanze Stelzenmuller of the Brookings Institution joined me to talk more about why Schengen is so important. We began with the name itself.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: Schengen is a small town the EU state of Luxembourg in Central Europe. And that's where the agreement was concluded that encapsulates the rule that member states who sign up to this agreement will not have border controls with each other.

SHAPIRO: So open borders - but that does not encompass the entire European Union. Explain that.

STELZENMULLER: No because members, you know, are free to sign up to it or not. But when it was first devised, I can tell you that this seemed to, I think - most Europeans - like the ultimate accomplishment of Europe, you know - no more border controls, no more passport controls, no more customs. We could move across, you know, with perfect ease. And it's become, I think, the symbol of Europe for most Europeans.

SHAPIRO: What is the current state of this symbol in light of the hundreds of thousands of people who are trying to travel across Europe?

STELZENMULLER: I think it's fair to say it's under threat because while I think no member state, at this point, you know, would be willing to say, we need to review Schengen itself, it is under huge pressure because of the uncontrolled numbers of migrants landing on the shores of the EU and travelling into the EU and - including into my own home country, Germany. It's like a tsunami. It's something that we haven't really seen since, I think, you know, 1945.

SHAPIRO: We're now seeing leaders within Europe erecting barriers, walls, fences in, you know, Hungary and other countries. Is that allowed under the Schengen Agreement?

STELZENMULLER: No, not really. And it's not just fences. This is - these are NATO wire protected fences, something we haven't seen in Europe, you know, since the end of communism and the Warsaw Pact. So that resonates hugely with all of us, even those of us who, like me, aren't old enough to remember 1945.

That said, it is simply true that when Germany says - you know what? - all refuges can come to us for the foreseeable future, that creates a huge pressure on the smaller transit countries who have to process these migrants and who have to give them safe passage.

And finally, if we're honest here, while Germany is currently the most wealthy and prosperous nation in Europe, even we aren't going to be able to handle an unlimited number of refugees, and even we are going to have to find some way of not just processing them, but limiting them and managing and perhaps even containing the inflow.

SHAPIRO: You say it could be a threat to the European project if Schengen becomes obsolete, falls apart. Some would argue that that has really happened, that Schengen is no longer in effect.

STELZENMULLER: Well, I think that Schengen is being called into question by European member states putting up barbed-wire fences, yes. But that doesn't mean an international treaty is - has become abrogated. It takes a little more than that. Maybe this is unduly optimistic of me, but I'm hoping that we can roll this back if we provide for a more manageable and equitable system. We're now in a Europe that's rounded by storms and that is experiencing a tsunami of refugees. And we may need another system, but it still has to be humane.

SHAPIRO: That's Constanze Stelzenmuller, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

STELZENMULLER: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me on the show.

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