Special The symbolic and practical implications of the Schengen expansion
On December 21 the Czech Republic made another significant step in becoming a fully-fledged member of the European Union. At midnight, Czechs, along with nine other new EU member states, abolished their border controls and become part of the border-free Schengen area. Almost two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the final barrier separating the former Eastern and Western bloc has been lifted. On the day of the country’s accession to the Schengen zone, I spoke to Ivo Slosarcik, lecturer of European and international law at Charles University. I started by asking him how the country’s entry to Schengen is going to affect people’s lives:
“I think the major difference regarding the Schengen accession will be both symbolic and practical. For people in the big towns like Brno or Prague it is primarily symbolic. It means another step to the full membership in the EU. The practical impact can bee seen by people in the border regions with a relatively dense network of border crossings. Of course it can make a difference for people commuting abroad or shopping in other countries.”
Do you think that people who live in the border areas will make use of this advantage and will travel more frequently across the former border?
“It depends on the particular conditions of the region. I think there will be regions that will benefit from it and regions that will use it less intensively. For instance South Moravia as well as North Moravia will benefit quite a lot, because of the cross-border train connections and dense network of roads. I think people living in mountain regions, such as some areas of Sumava at the German border will not use it in everyday life as intensively. Tourists will enjoy this higher mobility much more.”
Are there any other ways in which it will affect Czechs living in the Czech Republic?
“I think that the primary impact will be on the symbolic level and on the practicalities of people living or staying in the border region. For people travelling on the highway between Prague and Bratislava the difference won’t be that significant. They will save just a few minutes by not stopping at the border crossing, while until today you would spend let’s say five minutes showing your passport or what’s in the boot of your car. So these differences will be more symbolic than having some huge impact on the traffic.”
Talking about practicalities, what about foreigners living in the Czech Republic?
“You can separate foreigners living in the Czech Republic into two groups. The first is EU citizens and for them again there are virtually no changes. For them the change will be the same as for Czech people. What is going to change is the regime for non-EU citizens living in the Czech Republic, not because of the removing of the border controls but because of the administrative steps that accompany the full accession to Schengen. In particular the Czech Republic is changing and restricting the residence regime for non-EU foreigners. So for non-EU citizens the access to Schengen could bring some complications. It will be stricter, more time-consuming and in some cases more expensive to get a visa or permission to stay in the Czech Republic.”
You talked about the symbolic meaning and you said it is more important, especially for people in big cities. Do you think that it is more important than our entry into the EU?
“Yes, I think so. Firstly, it’s a symbol of the fact that promises should be fulfilled. By Czech accession to EU a promise was made that with some delay we will join full Schengen area. This is materializing just now. So the fact that promises made at EU level are to be fulfilled is extremely important. And secondly we shouldn’t underestimate the mental division of Europe. We have one EU but there is still a sort of mental division primarily between the old member states and new member states, particular among the older generation. And those border controls between old and new states played a role in maintaining this mental division. When we remove those internal border controls and the same border regime will be between the Czech Republic and Germany, Germany and France, France and Spain, it could help in time to eliminate this mental image of old and new Europe not only in administrative rules but in people’s minds.”
So do you think that the Czech Republic will now be regarded as a fully-fledged member of the EU?
“We still have restrictions of course. We have restricted mobility of people. We are still the poorer part of Europe. Of course we are not going to be considered a full member of the EU straight away – at least on a day-to-day basis. But the Schengen accession is another step towards more homogeneity in the positive sense, within the EU.”
And how do you think that ordinary Czech citizens actually feel about the lifting of the borders? Do they care at all?
“Well, it is definitely not the number one debate in restaurants or in pubs. I think it is more important right now which presents people are buying for Christmas. Where to go to the mountains for holiday. Schengen accession is paradoxically more debated in administrative circles than it is among ordinary people. I think this will change within few years. Or they will simply take it as a normal thing within a few months that there are simply no border controls and they can travel more easily. Where it is much more debated is the border regions. In this respect the Czech Republic provides quite an interesting case. Because we are still a relatively poorer country than the EU average but among the new EU states we belong to the top. So we can see a paradox that at the borders between Czech lands and Austria or Czech lands and Germany the major concern about security are on the German and Austrian side. But we can see a similar approach from Czech side for instance at the Czech-Polish border, where the Czech Republic is the more prosperous country. So some citizens at the Czech-Polish border regions express their concerns about the security threat from Poland.”
Looking back would you say that Czechs take advantage of unrestricted travel and the possibility to work abroad when you compare the Czech Republic to other EU member states?
“I think Czechs use the possibility of travelling, and of using the free market when I reflect upon the economic situation in the Czech Republic. Of course the number of Czechs searching for jobs say in Britain or Ireland is significantly smaller than the number of Polish or Slovak citizens, but this is primarily due to the economic situation and the welfare-state system in the Czech Republic. I think that not only workers but especially students are using very intensively the possibilities to study for a long or short time abroad. And I think that student mobility is even more important than mobility of workers. This is the major thing that will have long-term impact on Czech position in Europe.”
In what way?
“Firstly, it gives more students a chance to study at university level. It gives them experience of different approaches to teaching, they have new networks of friends, colleagues and future business partners in Europe. And last but not least it makes the Czech universities face a certain level of competition. That’s why I think it’s extremely important that students are already using the possibility of free movement within the European Union.”