The European Commission convened its first Schengen Forum on Monday, which brought together Members of the European Parliament and Home Affairs Ministers. Ahead of the meeting, the European Commission published its assessment of the Schengen Evaluation and Monitoring Mechanism which is verifying how countries implement the Schengen acquis via a peer-review system.

The EC’s report finds that the most prominent deficiencies and areas for improvement in Member States’ implementation of Schengen are: Incomplete or non-conform transposition, implementation and application of pertinent Schengen acquis; insufficient number of staff and inadequate qualification and/or training; diverging and inconsistent national practices due to incoherent implementation of the Schengen acquis; fragmented administrative structures with insufficient coordination and integration of the different authorities; and practical, technological and regulatory barriers to cooperation within the Schengen area.

In view of the functioning of the SEMM itself, the report recommends that the timelines for the development of the evaluation report and related recommendations is significantly shortened, especially when serious deficiencies in implementing the Schengen acquis are found. Among other issues, the report calls for the development of new trainings in the area of visa policy; more strategic use of unannounced evaluations and thematic evaluations; improved synergies and cooperation with EU agencies and national quality control mechanisms; particular attention for fundamental rights in assessing implementation of the Schengen acquis and the adoption of an annual report on SEMM findings to facilitate political discussion.

A study commissioned by the European Parliament on the SEMM to which ECRE contributed to and which was published last week found that while the SEMM constitutes a significant improvement in the evaluation of the Schengen acquis from the previous evaluation system, it has not yet managed to realise its full potential.

The study argues that the SEMM provides a snapshot-style evaluation of a specific Schengen policy area in a particular country at a certain point in time. The thematic separation of evaluation visits without a valid instrument to horizontally compile and analyse the various thematic strands prevents making more general statements on overall Schengen compliance across the different policy areas in a Member State. Balancing the at-times orchestrated nature of the announced visits with what would constitute a more representative reflection of the state of Schengen implementation in a country is a challenge throughout the SEMM, but particularly evident in the case of compliance with fundamental rights obligations. Evidence of push-backs and collective expulsions in violation of the principle of non-refoulement may be well documented but will never be witnessed during on-site visits, whether announced or unannounced.

The study comes to similar conclusions and related recommendations as to how the SEMM should be improved as the EC report: building more flexibility into the annual programme to allow the Commission to adapt it to respond to developments as they arise; increasing the number of unannounced visits and thematic evaluations; introducing deadlines to deal with overall length and delays during the SEMM; widening scope of evidence that is permitted and considered in preparation and during evaluations could help stakeholders get a more accurate picture of the actual situation and evaluating fundamental rights across all Schengen policy fields.

The participants of the Schengen Forum are supposed to meet regularly in different working groups, with the next Forum supposed to take place in spring 2021 ahead of the publication of a Strategy on the Future of Schengen, a revised Schengen Borders Code and a revised Schengen Evaluation and Monitoring Mechanism.

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Photo: (CC) Attila Németh October 2015

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.