18 January 2021

By Michela Pegurri

2020 is finally over. There is no need for me to remind any of you what made it such an unforgettable year. I live in one of the areas that were worst hit by the pandemic and I feel blessed to have welcomed the new year as a healthy person, along with my family.

Everyone’s habits had to change. I have been working from home since the end of February and I have had appropriately distanced social interactions ever since, no matter what lockdown rules were in place. Also, I haven’t left my country for the whole year.

Before COVID I would cross borders every other month or so, either for work or leisure; Europe was my playground, and planes my favorite toy. I endured crowds of sweaty people, unclean toilets, walking through metal detectors in socks; I tolerated sitting too close to strangers for hours, even when they decided that a mid-flight pedicure was a good idea. I almost cried when my luggage showed up at the belt one hour and a half after landing, the only time I really could not do without. Nothing would be too much to bear in comparison to the relief of finally being elsewhere, enjoying a new language, a different lifestyle, and food other than Italian. It was extremely easy and economical; and also very effective for recovering from work-induced stress. In most cases, all I needed was a credit card and my ID and I did not think too much about why that was while clicking on the “Confirm Booking” button. When things work well we do tend to take them for granted after all: the Schengen Agreement gives me visa-free access to 25 countries, 26 if we include my native Italy. The single market that came with it saw airfare prices drop and a more dynamic competition among airlines. For me, this meant being able to spend as little as 20€ for a return ticket.

So what is the ‘Schengen Agreement’ exactly and why does it exist?

As with all international treaties, Schengen does have a long and complex institutional history, that I will not retrace here. What I think is useful to know is that the Schengen Area was officially created in 1995 by abolishing border controls between signatories; this means that EU citizens are free to live, study, work and retire in any of the countries that are part of this area (currently 26); this supports the four freedoms of the single market – free movement of goods, persons, services and capital – outlined in Article 26 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).1

Let’s take a look at how this happens (all figures2 are estimates per year unless stated otherwise) and at the impact that reintroducing border controls would have on economies:

- 1.7 million people cross daily what used to be a national border on their way to work; if we add 1.8 million tourists to the count, the number of people that cross internal EU borders every day rises to 3.5 million. The cost of border controls on this flow would lie between €1.3 and €5.2 billion; in addition to this, the reintroduction of border controls would have a disastrous impact on tourism, which would decline by 5-25%;

- 1.7 million tonnes of goods, worth €2.8 billion in value, cross tariff-free internal Schengen borders, including our Amazon Prime orders. Border controls on goods would have a negative impact on transport (with an additional cost of €1.7 to €7.5 billion), on trade (which would decrease potentially by 20%), and in turn on national GDPs (ranging from -0.8% to -2.7%);

- last but not least, renewed border controls would require each state to rebuild a dedicated administrative infrastructure, which would absorb resources that could be invested elsewhere.

These numbers mean that Schengen has reduced costs for travelers, companies, and countries in a number of sectors, simplified procedures and expedited logistics, created jobs and boosted tourism and transport - all of this results in people in Europe having a better quality of life. There are, unfortunately, some downsides. 

The single market gives buyers lower prices and a bigger variety of products and enhances competitiveness on the market, but small businesses might not be able to compete, leading, in some cases, to the disappearance of peripheries and local products and supply chains. Also, people are sometimes forced to relocate to gain access to more opportunities but encounter international competition and are required to have high-level competencies that older people might not be able to develop. For those who relocate then bureaucracy is not easy to navigate, as reported by the European Citizen Action Service3 and confirmed by a friend’s personal experience: a public officer told her she could not have access to health services in Italy because her country was not within the EU. She’s Lithuanian. Furthermore, increased mobility has a negative impact on the environment, as pollution rises and infrastructure is built to support it. In addition to this, immigration and terrorism have awoken fear and some citizens feel insecure because of inconsistent external border policies and lack of controls on their national borders. Lastly, the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic saw countries react individually and showed that there is a lot of work still to be done to ensure that the EU can respond to emergencies cohesively as a true union of nations. 

European nations nevertheless need Schengen and the single market. The EU is the third-largest economy of the world4 after China and the US; no European country alone would be able to compete with these superpowers, nor would many national currencies. EU institutions however are aware that the system needs improving: the First Schengen Forum was held in Brussels on November 30th, 20205 with the aim of moving towards a stronger and more resilient Schengen area. Revising Schengen is a monumental task that will take time and requires both legislative and diplomatic efforts. Raoul Ueberecken, Director for Home Affairs at the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU, explains that “in recent years, the area of freedom, security, and justice has come under strain; the benefits and burdens have sometimes seemed to be unequally shared, and mutual trust [among member states] has been eroding”6.

The Migration Policy Institute seems to agree and links the need for mutual trust also to the pandemic: “If left unchecked, the future scenario for the Schengen zone may well be a continued pendulum swing between two forces: knee-jerk, unilateral border closures in response to threats, and a return to an EU-led coordination effort once the threat subsides. Each swing to the extreme further erodes the foundation of the Schengen system and the commitment of members to upholding their collective commitments to the principle of free movement”7.

Researchers8 and politicians are working on solutions and I hope that those solutions will also consider another important factor: the trust that European citizens need to have in the institutions of the EU, which are too often perceived as distant and complex. 

In this chaos I remain optimistic and hope that for once history, which is made by humans and their choices and actions, repeats its positive traits and sees European countries move past the temptations of nationalism and continue to evolve, finally blossoming into a more genuine European Union, that involves and nurtures small villages as well as big technological cities.

While we look at the future and make plans for our tomorrow, we must not forget in fact where Europe comes from. Ideas and movements in politics and art have always had a tendency of appearing everywhere in Europe roughly at the same time and take on local traits later on. Why? Because people have been on the move ever since prehistory. “Traveling across Europe means following in someone else’s footsteps. Each modern road hides an ancient path bearing witness to the journeys of pioneers, migrants, merchants, and conquerors”, explains Dutch author Mathijs Deen9.

He tells the story of an Icelandic woman’s pilgrimage from Laugarbrekka to Rome in 1025 and that of the escape of a Jewish's exile from Portugal to Sweden in 1653; in the same book we learn of a Dutch soldier who traveled from Wassenaar to Smolensk in 1812 during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and these are only a few examples that prove how common people have always been roaming across the continent, without even having to resort to quoting famous writers such as Stephan Zweig, Lord Byron or other Grand Tour enthusiasts. Mathijs Deen reminds us that the need to wander is not a new habit; on the contrary, it is an intentional action engraved in our history as Europeans and is, therefore, part and parcel of our identity. History showed that on many occasions entire armies were on the move across the continent, to conquer and combat and make their nation or empire proud; this was part of the process that led to dictatorships and genocides. So if we as Europeans need to roam then we also need to be sure that Europe is a safe place to do so, which is one of the reasons why, ultimately, we do need the EU and its infrastructure.

I decided that in 2021 I want to celebrate the extraordinary privilege of calling Europe my home with (COVID allowing) a road trip adventure along European Route 45, possibly with a deviation west along E6. If you want to know more about my itinerary then take a look at the European International E-Road network10.


If, like me, you are impatient to hop on a plane, train, car, boat or bike and resume your personal exploration of Europe, here are some books that might make the wait more bearable:

“Down Ancient Roads”, Mathijs Deen

(This is the book I quote from in the article. Original Dutch title: “Over oude wegen: een reis door de geschiedenis van Europa”. This excellent book has unfortunately not been translated into English; at the time of writing the book is only available in Dutch, German, and Italian)

“Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe”, Bill Bryson

“The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe”, Paolo Rumiz 

(original Italian title: “Trans Europa Express”)

“Down Beer Street: History in a Pint Glass”, Mika Rissanen & Juha Tahvanainen (original Finnish title: “Kuohuvaa historiaa: tarinoita tuopin takaa”)

Intext footnote references

(1)https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2016/579074/EPRS_ATA(2016)579074_EN.pdf (31 Dec 2020)

(2) https://europeanmovement.eu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/EMI_16_PolicyPosition_17_VIEW_Schengen_FINAL.pdf (31 Dec 2020)

(3)  https://ecas.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/ECAS-short-report-final.pdf (30 Dec 2020)

(4) https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/10868691/2-19052020-BP-EN.pdf/bb14f7f9-fc26-8aa1-60d4-7c2b509dda8e (30 Dec 2020)

(5) https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_2232 (30 Dec 2020)

(6)  https://www.cer.eu/sites/default/files/pbrief_schengen_ru_12.11.19.pdf (30 Dec 2020)

(7) https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/post-covid-prospects-border-free-schengen-zone (30 Dec 2020)

(8) See above footnote 6 and https://www.cer.eu/publications/archive/policy-brief/2016/why-schengen-matters-and-how-keep-it-five-point-plan (30 Dec 2020)

(9) See reading recommendations for details; I translated this excerpt from the Italian edition.

(10) https://www.transitmap.net/e-road-network-2020-cameron-booth/ (30 Dec 2020)