Friday, January 06, 2017

Is Schengen dead?

The « tour of Europe » by the terrorist who attacked a Christmas market in Berlin last month has renewed calls for stricter controls of the Schengenzone’s internal borders.

Two developments are ongoing:

1.      The Schengenzone’s weak external border is putting internal borders under pressure

First of all, there is an extension of relatively modest border checks at some of the borders of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Austria, Belgium, France and some other EU countries. Here’s a list of all temporary checks.

Key were Sweden’s decision near the end of 2015 to impose checks due to an “unprecedented influx of persons”, which also ended the massive size of the influx, and Austria’s decision during the same period, which forced the states along the so-called “Balkan Route”, through which many asylum seekers came to Northern Europe, to also impose checks. That on its turn forced Greece to tell irregular migrants to stay on the Greek islands if they wanted to apply for asylum (not something Greece seems to be organizing well), on its turn sending a signal to potential migrants in Turkey not to try their luck, which resulted in the near-end of drownings in Turkish-Greek waters and a big drop in the number of people reaching Europe in March (apart from of course the deal with Turkey).

The same policy of forcing asylum seekers to await their asylum request still has not been implemented by Italy, which allows people to travel on after they have been saved, despite some efforts to install a very imperfect system of fingerprinting. As a result, 4410 people have died across Italy’s coast, while almost 180.000 still made it to Europe in 2016 through the dangerous “Central Mediterranean route”.  Some pressure is being applied on Italy. Austria has for example threatened to close the border with Italy and may do so again. A related issue is the large scale failure to repatriate denied asylum seekers to their countries of origin. As long as EU countries somehow fail to force EU-funds receiving Northern African countries to take back their own nationals, these people will continue to try their luck. Belgium and Spain have a deal on this with Morocco. Why can’t the EU force Morocco to extend this deal to all EU member states?

I have argued that given the scale of the challenge, it’s better and probably cheaper for developed nations to create a new Hong Kong, where refugees, economic migrants and those denied asylum could be safely welcomed. But pending this, the immediate priority for Europe should be to avoid deaths in its own waters and save the Schengen zone by closing the external border.

The temporary checks within Schengen are expected to last at least until Germany’s elections in fall, but given their limited nature, it’s more the fear that they may become permanent than the checks itself that are concerning. The longer Italy refuses to copy Greece’s approach to no longer let asylum seekers travel on, the more Schengen is endangered.

2.      Schengen may be undermined by increased regulation of travel within Europe

A second development is how the increased complications to travel by air are likely to be extended to bus and railway transport. Belgian plans to force rail and bus companies to register passengers and pass the data on to the authorities is likely to find support from neighbouring countries, although Germany is still reluctant, due to its strong support for privacy, dating back to its experience with national and international socialism. The question is also whether all Schengen states will be able or willing to participate to this and whether Parliaments from other countries will be as keen to monitor how their security services deal with data from non-nationals as they would be when dealing with data from nationals.

A pessimistic leader in Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad today argues that once these arrangements are in place, it’ll not only mean that we may lose more time to travel by train or bus but also that our private car travel will come into the picture as the last unmonitored way of transport, which could ultimately lead to permanent border checks and the break-up of Schengen. It rightly raises the question: “then we’re giving up precisely those European freedoms which we’re trying to protect from terror”.


Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon is leading the drive to register bus and railway passengers but still has remarked that “one wouldn't want to live in a society which is 100% safe”. He’s of course right and we badly need an urgent debate on how much the loss of privacy has actually contributed to security.

The well-documented failures in Belgium, Germany and France by police and intelligence services to fight terror show that a lot of improvements can be made in improving their functioning before we continue to give up privacy or complicate travel within Europe needlessly.

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