“There is only one Europe – I saw it through the window of the plane”, Lech Wałęsa once said. While he likely did not have the Schengen zone in mind, these are still fitting words to describe the borderless plane of the European continent. There is no better symbol of European unity than the Schengen zone.

Migrants have been coming to European shores for decades, if not centuries, but, in the last few years, migration has risen to the top of the European Union political agenda. It is partly due to the rising number of immigrants and a partly due to changing economic and social conditions which have reduced the absorption capacity of receiving countries, at least in the eyes of their citizens. Are people safe from terrorists? Can governments control the flow of migrants? How will the new arrivals affect employment availability? European citizens are calling on their governments and institutions for answers. This urgency is why the Schengen zone increasingly appears in the media spotlight. Given public discomfort, and the political advantage of exploiting public anxiety, the Schengen’s continued existence should not be taken for granted.

The Schengen zone is not just a fundamental pillar of the European integration project. It is an ambitious bureaucratic and administrative system of supranational cooperation, a litmus test for solidarity between the Member States and the EU institutions (or lack thereof), and an institution guaranteeing the free movement of people and goods throughout the majority of the Single Market. Ordinary citizens rarely perceive Schengen as what it really is at the operational level: a complicated machinery of laws, administrative measures, and technological instruments that ensure the smooth functioning of the borderless space.

Freedom of movement within the EU is one of the main achievements of the Single Market. According to OECD statistics, mobility within the European Union is about four times more common relative to migration from the rest of the world. Particularly in times of economic turbulence, we must safeguard free movement to ensure that the full potential of Europe is used. Mobility is one of the primary vehicles for growth and, in times of increased global competition, access to the entire EU workforce is an advantage for European enterprises. Employees and their families must therefore be able to move freely to other countries. Some countries are facing greater demand for workers as their exports grow. Others are dealing with high unemployment. For young people without work prospects at home, traveling abroad may be their best chance to find a job and eventually return with valuable skills. Free movement is a win-win situation, for both individuals and the whole EU economy.

Moreover, the EU is grappling with major demographic changes and labour market shortages. Aging populations in Europe could soon translate into slower economic growth. Recognizing this context, Europe needs to be more open to legal migration and be more willing to employ the opportunities offered by migration.

At the same time, populism threatens Europe. People often heed anti-immigrant rhetoric over the rational arguments of experts or policy makers in the EU institutions. The most dangerous phenomenon is the increasing stigmatization of immigrants from certain countries. The room for reasoned debate on migration policy is shrinking, while ethnic nationalism seems to grow every day. In this policy paper, we set out to answer two fundamental questions: What would happen if the Schengen zone ceased to exist? What should be done so that this scenario never becomes reality?