Ladies and Gentlemen, Ministers, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Schengen is the jewel in the crown of European integration. Schengen has become part of our European way of life, and is an important element for making us feel not only Greeks or Swedes or Germans or Poles, but Europeans.
The Schengen area is the largest free travel area in the world. It allows more than 400 million EU citizens, as well as visitors, to move freely and goods and services to flow unhindered.
President von der Leyen - whom we will hear from in a moment -referred to it in her State of the Union speech as the linchpin of the single market and its four freedoms.
And I think that's the right way to look at it. Schengen isn't just about borders, it's about the economy.
At it's heart Schengen is the absence of internal border controls. But it is also much, much more than that.
It is a common commitment to effectively protect our external borders.
It is efficient police cooperation.
It is a common European visa policy.
It is a common European system of returns.
It is a common governance system with robust monitoring in the form of the Schengen evaluation mechanism.
And it is underpinned by a strong set of databases - the ones we already have, the Schengen Information and Visa Information systems, and the ones being put in place, ETIAS and the Entry/Exit system.
Europe is one of the most travelled to regions in the world. We issued over 17 million Schengen visas last year alone. The fact that our systems can quietly cope with this shows just what a well-oiled machine we are operating.
For the last 35 years, we have built an entire Schengen architecture to better protect the area without controls at internal borders. And we must continue to build on and improve that architecture going forward.
Because no system can bear the test of time without renewal.
Beyond the persistent terrorist threat and migratory pressures, the pandemic has of course had an unprecedented impact. In March 2020, 17 Schengen States reintroduced internal border controls in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restricting free movement and reintroducing internal borders harm the single market and the smooth operation of supply chains. More than this, they harm our European way of life.
That is why the Commission immediately took action and issued guidance to Member States on establishing green lanes in order to avoid shortages, preserving the vital functioning of the internal market and ensuring exceptions for essential workers were made.
I know this is not the prevailing narrative outside these (virtual) walls but I would like to underline that the cooperation on border measures has actually been extremely intense during this period and we can and should be proud of that.
The Commission hosted ministerial meetings every week and technical meetings as often as twice a week where all Schengen states attended and all systematically informed us and each other of measures before they enacted them.
The cooperation was so intense that many Member states complained to Ylva about the frequency of the meetings!
For me, this shows the unwavering commitment amongst Member States to preserving this essential freedom and driver of economic growth. And I know that commitment is shared whole heartedly by the Parliament too.
And that unwavering commitment should be the starting point of our discussions as we look to the future and about how to improve and reinforce the Schengen architecture.
Internal borders and controls are unwelcome vestiges of an old Europe, one we have left long behind us.
Ylva will guide us through a structured discussion, but if I would have one wish it would be that throughout our discussions - today and beyond - we keep these simple facts in mind: Schengen is an immensely impressive and highly functional architecture and one we are all committed to preserving and strengthening further.