The Schengen zone is “partially comatose”, Jean-Claude Juncker conceded on Wednesday, as he warned that its collapse would take down the eurozone.
The single currency cannot survive if the free movement of people granted by the passport-free travel zone ends, the president of the European Commission said, in the starkest warning yet.
Mr Juncker could only watch this summer after state after state reintroduced border controls in a desperate attempt to halt the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants. The Paris terrorist attacks led France to announce indefinite border checks.
“We have to safeguard the spirit behind Schengen,” Mr Juncker told the European Parliament. “Yes, the Schengen system is partially comatose.”
“But those who believe in Europe, its values, its principles and its freedoms, must try to breathe new life into the spirit behind Schengen.
“If the spirit leaves our hearts, we will lose more than Schengen. A single currency does not exist if Schengen fails. It is not a neutral concept. It is not banal. It is one of the pillars of the construction of Europe.”
Under the French crackdown, passport checks are being carried out on cross-border trains and at checkpoints on certain road crossings.
At least three of the Paris attackers are believed to have used the migrant trail to enter Europe undetected, leading to accusations from Ukip that the Schengen amounted to the “free movement of kalashnikovs, terrorists and jihadists”.
“Please don’t get things mixed up. We should not exploit in an absurd manner these tragic events,” said Mr Juncker, whose office had resisted French demands for universal security checks on migrants and EU passport holders.
Fabrice Leggeri, the head of Frontex, the EU agency charged with protecting the bloc’s external borders, admitted that it would take more than a year for his body to be granted access to the security databases that would allow it to detect terrorists.
He blamed MEPs for denying Frontex access to such databases in the past.
Norway, which is not in the EU but sits within Schengen, became the latest to reintroduce border checks on Wednesday to halt the flow from neighbouring Sweden, which is expected to receive an extra 350,000 people by the end of next year.
“The large number of asylum seekers and migrants is creating big challenges for us,” said Siv Jensen, the finance minister, in a statement.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, issued an ultimatum on Wednesday to EU leaders to embrace Mr Juncker’s troubled migrant relocation scheme or see the collapse of free movement.