Europe’s Schengen zone called into question after Paris attacks
The terror attacks in Paris and the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees have European leaders looking to increase control over their borders, calling into question the continued existence of the Schengen zone.
The 26-nation area within Europe has no passport checks or other controls between its internal borders, allowing travellers to move across countries with ease.
But this Friday, interior ministers from European Union states meet in Brussels to discuss the future of the zone, with France pushing for tighter border controls. This could see Schengen, a historic attempt at a unified Europe with free movement of people and goods, effectively disbanded after only two decades of existence.
The agreement, named for the town in Luxembourg where it was signed, was implemented in 1995. It applies to an area stretching from Finland all the way to Hungary on Europe’s southern frontiers. Greece is also a member, though it is separated from the rest of the countries by the Balkans.
In May, Emirati citizens were granted a visa waiver for Schengen countries, making the UAE the first Arab country to be granted free entry to the zone. Dozens of flights leave Abu Dhabi and Dubai every day for Schengen countries from which UAE citizens and eligible residents can freely travel across most of Europe for 90 days in any 190-day period.
Being able to travel without the hassle and delays of border controls through most of the European Union (Britain and Ireland are not Schengen members) benefits not only tourists, but also the spirit of economic cooperation that the EU aims to promote. Lorries transporting goods save precious hours by avoiding border controls, as do businesspeople travelling overland from Berlin to Warsaw, for example.
As the numbers of people fleeing conflict, political oppression and a lack of economic opportunities increased over the past year, many European countries have moved to reintroduce border controls. This is an attempt by authorities to both organise the flow of refugees and to also understand who is entering their territory.
Such measures are understandable, all the more so after 129 people were killed in multiple terror attacks in Paris on November 13 that were claimed by ISIL. For months, there were fears that ISIL militants would hide themselves among refugees to travel to Europe and carry out attacks. Initial reports suggested that one of the Paris attackers was a refugee, but it was later reported that the passport found near his dead body was fake, leaving his true identity unknown. Most of the individuals involved in the attack were identified as European citizens.
Refugees fleeing to Europe instead of moving to ISIL-controlled territory is a significant repudiation of the group’s rule. ISIL has every reason to want European citizens to fear the refugees. The return of border controls across Europe over fears caused by the influx of refugees would be exactly the kind of victory ISIL aims to achieve.
Security concerns must be taken into account. French president Francois Hollande, who is demanding stricter controls following the attacks in Paris, aims to protect his country’s citizens. The Schengen agreement also allows for the reintroduction of border controls during emergencies.
However, any long-term curtailing of Schengen is a blow to the international community. The successful effort at free movement and economic cooperation among different nationalities, cultures and languages is an example for other unions of countries, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
“The big question is whether Schengen will be formally abolished, or if countries will begin to opt out from it,” the geopolitical risk firm Stratfor said in an analysis following the Paris attacks.
“The concept of a Europe without borders has become very difficult for governments to defend.”
At the moment, several Schengen countries, including Germany, France and Sweden, have re-established border controls. At the least, a revision to the agreement appears likely to follow the meeting in Brussels on Friday.
This would come not just at a time when great numbers of refugees are coming to Europe from the Middle East, but also when right-wing nationalist parties sceptical of efforts such as Schengen are gaining ground.
There is the question of whose agenda the ending or scaling back of Schengen would better serve: that of security services aiming to prevent a terror attack or that of nationalist parties?
After all, it appears that most of the extremists who carried out the Paris attacks were citizens of Schengen countries.
The EU meeting on Friday in Brussels will also discuss stronger weapons controls, ways to combat terror financing and a European database of airline passengers.
Updated: November 20, 2015 04:00 AM