Unfinished business on the EU’s borders

Like the Schuman underground station in Brussels, the Schengen Agreement is a project that was never finished. Brussels seems to have a problem with following through.

Schuman station is an underground stop in between the European Council and Commission buildings in Brussels. It’s started to look ironic to me that this station is located at the heart of European policy.

You see, the renovation of Schuman underground station has been a work in progress for over seven years.

And it still isn’t finished.

This is not unlike the work being done in the buildings next to the station.

The euro, for example, has made life more convenient for many. But it only thrived when an economic boom could camouflage the flaws in its structure.

Similarly, the Schengen area seemed to work fine only as long as it wasn’t heavily tested, the way it is being now with the high number of refugees knocking on Europe’s door.

In both cases it was clear what needed to be done, but somehow it never actually got done.

Whether it’s construction or politics, Brussels seems to have a problem with following through.

Today the EU is hosting emergency talks with Sweden, Denmark and Germany after the Scandinavians reinstated border checks for migrants.

It’s become a bit of a trend for EU member states to temporarily opt out of the passport-free zone. Especially after the arrival of an unprecedented number of refugees has caused a number of countries to check IDs at the border again.

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The Schengen Agreement is named after a town in Luxembourg where seven countries decided to abolish passport controls in 1985. It came into effect in 1995 and currently has 26 signatories, including 22 EU member states.

The implications of more permanent border control in the participating countries shouldn’t be underestimated. Europeans and the European economy have gradually adapted to the reality of a passport-free zone.

In 2014, 1.7 million people crossed Schengen borders daily for work. Economists estimate delays at the border and reduced trade will cost the still fragile European economy billions.

But, what about security?

France only reintroduced border controls after the Paris attacks. And if regular passport checks would decrease the threat of terrorism I’d be the first to say security trumps the economy.

Will they though?

Security is an important part of the Schengen agreement with databases keeping track of suspicious individuals arriving in the area. The people behind the attack at a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014 and last year’s Thalys train attack and Paris attacks had all been flagged, yet no action was taken.

If anything this is a cry for greater transnational co-operation rather than a retreat to the costly and inefficient situation in which national intelligence agencies all go at it alone.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, Wolfgang Münchau wrote in the FT that “the folly of a borderless Europe” must end.

I wouldn’t describe Schengen as folly. I don’t think there’s much wrong with the blueprint. It’s just a project that was never completed, like Schuman station. Political leaders started something they didn’t finish.

In my opinion, there are now two remedies to the current situation.

One is to return to national border checks, which would harm the economy, significantly reduce the freedoms we’ve grown accustomed to, and do very little to counter terrorism.

The other is to increase transnational co-operation and reinforce the external borders of the Schengen area. I believe this is what needs to be done, though it should’ve been done a long time ago.

If Schengen were to end it would certainly be a blow to the EU economy and a giant step away from completing the common market.

But more importantly it’d be a moral defeat as we’d effectively be giving up a freedom for, quite possibly, a false sense of security.

Like the works on Schuman underground station, politicians in Brussels might want to try to finish the job first before they tear it down.

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