November 19, 2015
A report published by a Dutch newspaper on Wednesday suggests that some EU members are starting to think about a post-Schengen, if not post-EU, Europe. According to De Telegraaf, the Dutch Cabinet recently discussed a plan to create a smaller version of the Schengen Agreement that would include only the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria. The report was only partially dismissed by the Dutch foreign affairs minister, who denied plans to create a smaller version of the Schengen zone but admitted that his government was considering an alliance of “like-minded countries” to reduce the influx of asylum seekers in Northern Europe.
The group of countries the Dutch Cabinet allegedly discussed are developed Northern European nations that have recently seen a spike in the arrival of migrants. In all these countries, increasingly popular nationalist parties have criticized the European Union’s handling of the refugee crisis. Consequently, any plans to limit the arrival of foreigners and to improve border controls would be positively received by the countries on the Netherlands’ list, or at least by significant segments of their populations.
An alliance among the governments mentioned by De Telegraaf is plausible even beyond asylum policies. These are nations that tend to have similar views when it comes to financial and economic matters. They also oppose the idea of the European Union as a transfer union in which wealthy countries in the north subsidize those in the south. Some economists and politicians have argued that, should the eurozone collapse, it would make sense for these economies to create their own currency union. Parties like Alternative for Germany have suggested the creation of a “northern eurozone” with a similar lineup of members.
Put simply, this is not a random list of countries, but a collection of states that share deep cultural and historic links. In fact, the map that the Dutch government allegedly has in mind bears a remarkable resemblance to the Holy Roman Empire in the late 18th century.
The report about discussions within the Dutch Cabinet coincides with another group of countries figuring out whether to deepen their own ties. The debate over whether to introduce asylum seeker quotas into the European Union has given new life to the Visegrad Group, made up of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The newly elected Polish government has already stated that keeping strong ties with its Visegrad partners will be a priority, and that Warsaw will also seek to continue its strategic partnership with Romania to create a political axis (and potentially a military alliance) from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
Beyond alliances, the United Kingdom is pushing as well for a redesign of the European Union. From London’s point of view, the European Union should be a structure based on free trade and political agreements, not necessarily on the free movement of people or on a commitment to surrender sovereignty to unelected officials in Brussels. The Netherlands and countries in Nordic Europe, to different degrees, support this view.
The Dutch plan is notable, however, for the countries it omits — the most obvious of which is France. As both a Mediterranean and a Northern European country, France has traditionally struggled to find a balance between its desire to build a sphere of influence along the Mediterranean and its strategic interests in the north. If the Dutch plan materializes, France would be put in an awkward situation, since it would have to decide whether to try to join the “northern alliance” or create its own sphere of influence, potentially including Spain and Italy. This would be an alliance of Mediterranean nations with similar strategic interests when it comes to places like North Africa and similar economic views on issues such as inflation or public spending.
Germany would also be put in an uncomfortable situation. Some German conservatives defend the idea of a two-speed Europe, where some countries integrate faster than others. From this point of view, it would make sense for some countries to draw closer together while others are left behind. But the Dutch proposal could be problematic for several reasons. First, it would mean a redesign of the Schengen area and the expulsion of most of its current members. It is hard to see how the European Union could survive such a decision. Second, it is unlikely that Berlin would support a plan that does not include Paris.
Things would be very different, though, if the Dutch plan were implemented in the context of a common consensus about the failure of the Schengen Agreement. If, instead of a unilateral decision by a small group of countries, the entire European Union agreed that the Schengen area must be abolished, then France and others could decide that it is best to regain control of their borders while Germany might decide to sign new border agreements with the northern countries.
But even if the “mini-Schengen” were the result of a Europe-wide agreement, it seems unlikely that it could materialize without additional measures aimed at solidifying the divide between the economies in the north and those in the south. At this point, the idea is only a rumor in the Dutch media, and potentially one of many discussed by the Dutch government in the wake of the Paris attacks. However, current conversations in Northern and Eastern Europe suggest that the Netherlands is not alone when it comes to thinking of alternatives, should the current political, economic and security order in Europe change. More broadly, this might just be the first steps of a long-running Stratfor forecast — that Europe may begin to break up once more into its constituent cultural blocks.