On migration, Hungary is increasingly the EU’s weakest link

Fears of a new migration crisis and a heightened risk of terrorism have prompted a chain reaction of border closures between Schengen area countries in emerging Europe. The domino effect highlights the need for a coherent EU-level response. 

Once the champion of the hardline “Hungarian model” of combatting undocumented migration, Viktor Orbán’s country is today one of the weakest points on the European Union’s external border.

Despite building a razor-wire fence on its southern borders in 2015 and granting refugee status to only 10 people last year, Budapest decided to release almost 1,500 incarcerated foreign-born people smugglers earlier this year in a bid to save money. 

The convicts were given three days to leave the country, though the EU has said there were in fact no checks that those released departed.

Currently, many migrants traveling onwards from Serbia—which is not in the EU or Schengen area—enter Hungary then cross into neighbouring Slovakia and Slovenia en route to Germany and other Western European states. In September, Slovakian officials registered 13,000 migrants crossing through their territory—more than in the entirety of 2022. 

Ad hoc responses to migration and terror threats 

On October 3, Poland introduced controls on its border with Slovakia in the hope of reducing illegal entries. Slovakia’s other Schengen area neighbours—Austria and Czechia—subsequently introduced their own checks on their borders with Slovakia to prevent Poland-bound migrants from rerouting through their own territory.   

“Migration needs a European solution for [the] external borders,” said Slovak Prime Minister Ludovit Odor. “If one country starts guarding its border more, it will lead to a cascade effect that we will all pay for, and the outcome will be very unclear.” 

Nevertheless, Slovakia has since introduced controls on its border with Hungary. 

After the Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas massacred 1,400 Israelis on October 7 and Israel began a retaliatory military campaign to eliminate Hamas that has killed thousands of Palestinians, many European countries raised their terror alerts.

Authorities across the continent have recorded a surge in anti-Semitism—including the firebombing of a synagogue in Berlin—and deadly attacks by suspected Islamic extremists in Belgium and France. Citing this increased threat level, Italy suspended the Schengen Treaty on freedom of movement and introduced controls on its border with Slovenia, which in turn introduced border checks on its borders with Hungary and Croatia.

Croatia was only admitted to the Schengen area in December 2022.  

European solution 

The treaties upon which the Schengen area is based stipulate that signatories normally allow free cross-border movement but may reintroduce temporary border controls in times of crises, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“It turns out that unless we have a Europe-wide migration framework, a return policy, a protected external border, an asylum policy, all of which the new migration pact is supposed to include, it is being replaced by regional cooperation, and we are depriving ourselves of the number one EU privilege: the Schengen area,” said Czech Interior Minister Vít Rakušan. 

On October 4, following the resolution of a standoff between Berlin and Rome, a qualified majority of the European Council reached a preliminary agreement on a so-called Crisis Regulation to address extraordinary periods of migration that fall beyond the scope of the “mandatory solidarity” framework for regular periods of migration.

The Council will use this preliminary agreement as its joint position in negotiations with the European Parliament to establish common rules to manage mass arrivals of asylum seekers, but Orbán and the outgoing Polish government have pledged to do everything in their powers to block the plan in its current form. 

While the border controls are temporary, gridlock in key EU institutions has increasingly pushed member states to address pressing policy questions and crises through ad hoc intergovernmental workarounds rather than within EU processes.

EU enlargement is pushing Brussels to consider how best to ready the decision-making processes of its institutions for more members while also improving the quality of its democratic governance for existing member states.

The accession of Serbia and other western Balkan states will also allow for closer migration policy alignment with Brussels—but the EU must find Europe-wide solutions soon before the Schengen area and other institutions are worn away by sluggish institutional responses. 

Bulgaria & Romania

Ironically, the current spate of internal Schengen border checks comes as Romania and Bulgaria—left out of Schengen due to Austrian and Dutch objections when Croatia was admitted last year—ramp up the diplomatic pressure ahead of another vote on their membership.

Spain, which currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Council, has said that it is open to placing Bulgarian and Romanian membership of Schengen on the agenda of the next full council meeting, set for early December.

Romania’s interior minister, Cătălin Predoiu, said on October 23 that at the most recent meeting of all EU interior ministers, it had been agreed by all countries—including Austria, which has for months insisted that “Schengen isn’t working”—that Romania was no longer a source of illegal migration. He added that Bulgaria was “locked in dialogue” with the Netherlands over its own objections to Schengen enlargement, over rule of law issues in the Balkan country.

While, on the surface, the introduction of temporary border controls appears to confirm Austria’s long-held belief that Schengen isn’t working, it also, one Brussels-based diplomat points out, “reminds member states that they have the power to control their own borders”.

“Viewed objectively, the border controls negate somewhat the argument that Schengen can’t be enlarged,” he adds.

Almost twelve months on from last December’s disappointment, Bulgaria and Romania will not be overly confident of Schengen membership this year, but the mood music in Bucharest and Sofia is a little more optimistic than it was just a couple of weeks ago.

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