Schengen: Flagship European Policy
Paulina lives in Słubice, Poland, on the east bank of the Oder. It used to be the case that she had to cross a border control and identify to attend school on the other side of the river. Now a university student, Paulina continues to cross the border every day, yet it has been almost eight years since she last saw anything resembling a border between Słubice and Frankfurt and the Oder.
This is thanks to the Schengen Agreement, a key European Union treaty neutralising borders between member states since 1995 and which Poland implemented in 2007 following its access to the Union three years earlier. Millions of Europeans now seamlessly commute between places such as Maastricht and Liège, Gerona and Perpignan or Copenhagen and Malmö. Cross-border bus routes exist between France and Germany. Deplaning overseas now invariably means seeing bewildered Europeans trying to hide their awkwardness as they go through the unfamiliar process of custom clearance. Schengen is a symbol of what it means to be European: the art of standing up to the impertinence of illogical European fragmentation.
The Treaty of Schengen is nonetheless not going through the best of times. The ongoing refugee crisis puts a strain on trust for this flagship European policy. Europeans are quick to give in to the populist discourse of Europe’s most toxic political leaders and point at Schengen as the source of the issue. Some of their diagnoses are very valid. It is undeniable that breaches exist in Schengen’s external borders. Once undesirable individuals sneak into Greece, Bulgaria or Malta, they are free to reach any point in the area.
This was however a controllable political circumstance for moderate politicians across Europe until last week. The refugee crisis is a progressive state of affairs for which a considerate debate has been held, showing overwhelming popular support for refugees and a borderless Europe.
Paris attacks targeted European freedom and values
This only got uncontrollably problematic last week. Europe being shaken to its core following a wave of extremely violent attacks in Paris. Chaos traumatised minds and habits across the Union. Targeting the capital of France, the Islamic State aimed at Europe’s cultural heart, the birthplace of modern liberal thinking and a multicultural environment. A shooting at a concert of an irreverent rock band killed young urbanites most likely to travel with friends any given day and drive across Schengen states to ski in Italy or visit an art exhibition in Luxembourg. Terrorists despise the free, people likely to enjoy some music, food or football on a Friday evening.
Schengen operates no distinctions though. It is now just as easy to drive across a borderless Europe to commit a terrorist attack in Paris while residing in Brussels as to confuse intelligence services. This is particularly worrying as poisonous judgements thrive in the aftermath of exceptionally traumatising circumstances. Forces previously calling for the reestablishment of Europe’s internal borders now find their message easier to convey.
We could thus at this stage sadly declare terrorism as on good course for victory. Terrorism’s purpose to destroy societies from the inside out by dividing and tempting individuals until irreparable fractures appear. This is key to state failure and European society faces such circumstances. The inconsiderate surge of nationalism and xenophobia is the clearest symptom of its blindness. Strategic considerations of division and subsequent conquest are however as relevant as ever. Isolationism initiated some of the most traumatic events in 20th century Europe and may very well repeat the feat, with irrevocable effects given the present global geopolitical outlook this time around.
It is therefore confidently that Europeans should respond to the present challenge by reacting the opposite way than wished for by the Islamic State and its acolytes. Far from dismantling Schengen, it should be vigorously reinforced to better confront the challenges and emerge in stronger shape.
We need more Schengen but also more coordination
Recognising the status of Schengen’s external borders as formally European rather than national is a fundamental first step. The border between Morocco and Spain in Melilla has not been a Spanish one for a long time. When people walk into Finland from Russia they are effectively entering much more than Finland too. Schengen requires the legal definition of these territorial lines as exclusively European. Once inside the Union it is possible to travel to Prague or Amsterdam just as an arrival in El Paso signifies unlimited movement to New York or Chicago. The difference is that American borders are managed by a Federal agency, the US Border Patrol, whereas Europeans must rely on the uncoordinated and often uneven labour of national forces. This is further complicated by the fact that the ingress country is only seldom the destination, making incentives for tighter control weaker. It should not come as a surprise that European external borders are as porous as sieves. A European border agency with means proportionate to a 500 million Union is a high priority necessity.
Schengen also requires real unified migration policy. Recent events demonstrate how keen domestic politicians are to renegade from their European obligations, as demonstrated by Poland’s immediate cancellation of refugee intake duties after the attacks in Paris. The fallout of Germany’s decision to welcome all political refugees this summer also demonstrates how other member states should not suffer from this sort of unilateral decisions either as this represents illegitimate hierarchy amongst member states that works in favour of the populists. Schengen should be unequivocal in its designation of whom it grants access rights at central level.
Passport obtention procedures should be streamlined too. It is at the present time variably complex to obtain citizenship of a European Union state, yet all citizenships should give rise to the same European rights (as is unfortunately not the case at the present time). With some noticeably easier to obtain passports, undesirable individuals are able to legally reside throughout the Union with potentially catastrophic consequences. A single protocol for the concession of citizenship should be put of the European Union’s agenda.
Open borders also signify shared risk. It is thus in the general interest to level protection offered throughout the Union. US-style federal level police enforcement (such as the FBI) is not an option at the present time. The linguistic and legal differences would render such a project excessively complex and ultimately self-defeating. Intelligence is on the other hand a much more easily unifiable matter. The variable expertise of the different national agencies is easily distinguishable and the disappearance of borders highlights how black spots can very quickly become operational bases for entire criminal ecosystems. The fact that the Islamic State preferred to recruit in Belgium rather than France is clear evidence of it. Excessively complex politics have made Belgium weak, making it much more desirable to operate from the now internationally infamous commune of Molenbeek than some Parisian suburb. Only a CIA-style will make the Schengen Area a desirably safe environment. The scale of the worldwide menace is so immense that no individual European intelligence agency can at the present time gather satisfyingly comprehensive information. Even better prepared American or Russian intelligence services struggle at this paramount task. It is hence no coincidence if the creation of such a service has been amongst the first rumoured decisions to emerge from a series of meetings between European interior ministers after the Paris attacks.
Europeans should therefore make no mistake: the Schengen Agreement is indeed one of the most precious benefits offered by the EU. It nonetheless shares its political DNA with most European flagship projects and subsequently presents considerable flaws. National politicians have been successful in limiting the scope of the Agreement in order to retain some control, compromising security. Rather than taking advantage of a disastrous situation, national governments should work fast to deliver much needed improvement. What is presently a simply borderless area should urgently become a single unified territory. Only then will Europe be able to protect itself from the forces that want to see it fail and fall.