As several Schengen countries reintroduce border checks, Kieran Duffy finds out what the upheavals could mean for Colombian tourists who have just started to enjoy visa-free access
The Schengen agreement is facing an unprecedented crisis. The deal, which has allowed people and goods to cross borders freely throughout much of Europe since 1995, is considered a key-stone of European integration.
But now, the continent is witnessing the largest movement of displaced people since the Second World War. Huge numbers of refugees are arriving from countries such as war-torn Syria and repressive Eritrea, putting a massive strain on the recipient countries.
The threat of terrorism has also eroded free movement, particularly the horrific attacks in Paris last November, largely carried out by Belgian nationals.
The Schengen treaty allows countries to implement temporary border controls in response to emergency situations. France, Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden and Denmark have all introduced such emergency border checks.
Member states are soon due to vote on the possibility of introducing two-year emergency control measures. If that happens, some commentators believe it could be the beginning of the end for the treaty.
Others, such as Pawel Swidlicki, policy analyst at Open Europe, an independent EU policy think tank, are more optimistic. “I think we are unlikely to see radical changes in Schengen in the next few months, the border controls that have been re-imposed [e.g. between Germany and Austria, between Sweden and Denmark] will stay in place for as long as the refugee and migration crisis continues unabated”, he told The Bogotá Post.
He explains that the long-term future is much more open. “Clearly, there is huge political determination to keep Schengen, as it is a manifestation of European integration and walls having come down which divided people and nations from one another. However, how long can border controls remain in place and still be described as ‘temporary’?”
Swidlicki continues, “My guess is we’ll see some kind of hybrid situation with most borders, especially those not on the front line of the crisis, remaining open but others keeping controls for the foreseeable future – not least in the wake of the Paris attacks. One option would be the fracturing of Schengen into regional blocs as the Dutch suggested, with countries like Greece that are seen as weak links potentially excluded altogether.”
These developments come just as Colombians gain visa-free access to the Schengen area. On December 2, after months of negotiations, Colombia finally signed a Schengen region visa exemption agreement with the European Union. From the following day, Colombian citizens were able to travel for up to 90 days to 26 European countries with only a valid passport.
Since 2001, Colombian travellers to the Schengen zone had been required to fulfil complex steps for each country, a process that President Santos described as ‘unfriendly’. The removal of these barriers was a huge step forward for Colombia, reflecting the massive improvement in the country’s reputation and making travel easier for many citizens.
However, this enormously beneficial visa exemption comes at a time of uncertainty for the Schengen agreement, raising questions about whether, if the treaty itself were to fail, Colombians would lose their new-found privileges almost as soon as they’d got them.
When contacted, the German embassy in Bogotá assured us this was not the case. They said the only difficulty for Colombians will be showing their documents at border controls like everybody else. They went on to emphatically state, “It is not possible that the agreement between Schengen and Colombia will collapse”.
Swidlicki agrees, “I don’t see why a country like Colombia, which is not a security risk in the way say Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan are, could not keep a common visa with Schengen even if Colombian nationals have to undergo checks at border crossings like all other EU nationals.”
All of this should come as good news to Colombians keen to take advantage of the visa exemption. What was once a complex and difficult process has been made much simpler. Angélica Gutiérrez recently travelled to Portugal and told The Bogotá Post how easy she found the whole process. She said “For me it was very easy to travel. They didn’t bother me at all in the airport in Lisbon”.
By Kieran Duffy