(GUA – click to see) With Sweden and Denmark reintroducing border controls in a new Europe of razor-wire fences, fear of mass immigration and homegrown terror, obituaries are already being written.
During a break in a working day recently, Rainer Maring decided on impulse to take his apprentice for a mini history lesson. The pair of German painters and decorators got in the company van at lunchtime and took their ham sandwiches across the river Mosel from Germany to Luxembourg, into the vine-clad village of Schengen.
You cross the bridge from Germany into Luxembourg, turn left, and 300 metres on you’re in France – three countries in about three minutes, and not a police officer in sight. In 1985, ministers from five governments met here to launch a bold experiment in border-free travel. Cars and lorries with green dot stickers on their windshields could roam the five countries – the same three plus Belgium and the Netherlands – without passports.
The ID-free travel zone became fully fledged in 1995 and kept growing. And the village acquired unexpected pride and renown as the birthplace of a free travel regime that now embraces 26 countries from Iceland to Greece. It is known as Schengen Europe.
Maring showed the teenager the rusting iron structure erected to mark the original agreement where visitors attach padlocks and other mementos in tribute to ID-free travel, easy cross-border commuting to work, shopping binges in another country, weekends away, and beach or skiing holidays unencumbered by boring passport hassles.
But recounting the story of one of the key experiences of European integration, the painter and decorator sounded elegiac, as if describing not current realities but those of a lamented past.
“It was an ideal, that all these countries would unite and be the same and equal,” Maring sighed. “But Europe’s not working right. Now all of this is in danger. We’re going backwards. There are lots of calls to close down the borders. It’s all going wrong.”
Across the street from the iron structure, the village elders have built a little museum dedicated to the liberties of Schengen. That, too, is intended to be idealistic and uplifting but these days looks and sounds ironic, with a heavy dose of melancholy.
“The suppression of internal borders of the European Union is recognition that all the citizens of the states concerned belong to the same space, that they share a common identity,” says a proclamation stencilled on the museum wall.
In a time of the new European nationalism, of razor-wire fences and renewed border controls, of mass immigration and homegrown terror, of fear and insecurity, the stencil seems quaintly old-fashioned. Germany re-established border controls in September amid an unprecedented number of refugee arrivals, and France did the same after the Paris terror attacks.
All across Europe, the proponents of closed national societies are gaining ground against those favouring liberal, open regimes. In a sense, the museum in Schengen feels about right, an exhibition dedicated to a short-lived, historical curiosity, a provisional system that buckled and dissolved under the pressures of internal populism and external strains.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-president of France who hopes to reclaim the post in 2017, has declared “Schengen is dead”. For Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, the comparison is with the decline and fall of the Roman empire: “Big empires go down if the external borders are not well-protected.”
This kind of talk is viewed as cheap and irresponsible by policymakers in Brussels who accuse mainstream national leaders of appropriating the incendiary language of far-right mavericks to try to shore up their shrinking electoral bases.
“This is the main argument we’re hearing these days – that Schengen is over,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, told the Guardian. “It’s sad to see Europe panicking before 700,000 refugees. This is a sign of weakness.
“Schengen is different because the temptation to question it comes from inside. First it was the refugees, then terrorism. But what does Schengen have to do with terrorism? Nothing. It has in it the mechanisms that we need also to face these threats.”
Nonetheless, there is a strong sense among policymakers that national leaders in Europe lack the political will to bolster and support the Schengen system in a crisis, that they are more focused on courting voters by ignoring Schengen in favour of national remedies.
“Internal border controls will be a nightmare,” admitted an ambassador in Brussels from a large EU country. “But there are ideas about redefining the Schengen space. It’s about getting control of the Greek borders. If this doesn’t happen, some say the Schengen system could collapse fully.”
Another ambassador from a key country said: “We want to keep Schengen, but everyone has to respect the rules. The system does not work any more. It was not designed for what we have right now, hundreds of thousands of refugees.”
With hundreds of thousands having entered Greece from Turkey in 2015, the focus is on forcing Athens to tighten controls and surrender some sovereignty over its borders by passing authority to EU agencies, a quantum leap and an intolerable precedent for the present generation of nationalists.
But the Greek border with Turkey is mainly maritime, in the Aegean. The Greeks are reluctant to agree to joint border controls with the Turks. And the European commission’s recent proposals for a European border guard empowered to overrule national authorities are hugely contested and may take years to implement.
“What does protecting borders mean in this specific case, letting people die at sea?” asked Mogherini. “Protecting borders at sea means if you see someone in difficulty you have to act.”
The widespread conviction among European governments that the system is dysfunctional means that they increasingly opt for national action. President François Hollande renewed French border controls following the Paris terror attacks while Manuel Valls, the prime minister, says France will not agree to take in any more refugees under European quota schemes pushed by Germany. The French are starting to police and ID-check transnational Schengen train traffic from Paris.
Germany, too, has re-established national border controls. The Austrians are erecting a barbed wire fence on the border with fellow Schengen member Slovenia. From Hungaryto Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia, the fences are sprouting across central and southern Europe.
In the north and east, similar processes are under way. Sweden, the most open country in Europe for immigrants, re-erected ID checks and controls on the first Monday of 2016 on its border with Denmark. Denmark followed hours later with reintroduced controls on its border with Germany so that Sweden-bound refugees would not become stuck in the country, said prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. At the end of 2015, the newly elected nationalist government in Warsaw, reacting to the Paris terror attacks, announced it needed to take full control of its own borders.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is widespread everywhere in Europe, but nowhere is it more strident than in eastern Europe, where the governments of Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland are the nationalist cheerleaders of a closed Europe. Yet they love the benefits that Schengen brings.
Viktor Orbán, the pugnacious rightwing Hungarian leader, rarely has a good word to say about the EU, but for Schengen he makes an exception. “For Hungarians, Schengen is freedom.”
Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, runs Orbán a close second in his contempt for west European liberals. Yet there are more passport-free crossings daily between Bratislava to Vienna – a 45-minute commute to work – than anywhere else in the EU.
All across continental Europe – though not in Britain or Ireland, which remain outside Schengen – the free-travel zone long ago became part of the texture of daily life. Italians, French, and Germans go back and forth to work in (Schengen) Switzerland every day in their tens of thousands without ID checks, just some of the 1.7 million people who in 2014 commuted daily to work in another country without document checks, according to the Bruegel thinktank in Brussels.
The Øresund Bridge between Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmö meanwhile links two Schengen countries and has helped spawn a vibrant transnational economic area of 4 million people. When identity checks were introduced on the bridge on Monday, up to 8,000 commuters in Denmark endured 45-minute delays on their route back.
The erosion of Schengen comes with high costs attached. “The French reintroduced border controls and there were traffic jams everywhere, three to four hours,” said Roger Weber, a former mayor of Schengen village in Luxembourg. “The impact on the economy is huge. It’s suicidal, especially at a time like this when economic prospects are poor. We can’t live with closed borders.”
And it is arguable whether the new nationalism and proliferating border controls will stem immigration or combat Europe’s homegrown terror problem. The attacks are almost invariably carried out by people with EU and Schengen passports.
Hungary’s razor wire has had no impact on the numbers reaching the EU. Orbán simply succeeded in diverting the flow to neighbouring countries.
When Mehdi Nemmouche killed four people with a Kalashnikov at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May 2014, the French national had already been identified through the databases that are the heart of the Schengen system, although inadequately exploited. The failure was national rather than “European” or “Schengen”.
Nemmouche flew into Frankfurt after leaving Syria for Turkey and was flagged on arrival as suspicious in the Schengen databases, known as SIS and SIS-2. German police alerted the French authorities, who took no action.
The atrocity highlighted how the key to effective policing of terrorism or organised crime – both by definition transnational and cross-border – lies in pooling intelligence and automatic sharing of information by security services across the 26 countries.
“It’s not that easy to do all this,” Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, told the Guardian. “We’re not a federal state. Intelligence is the exclusive competence of member states. And some parts of Europe don’t have the electronic equipment.”
National intelligence services in the EU share plenty of information, but they tend to do it one country to another without any systematic sharing through the common databases. National agencies are said to be highly reluctant to input information into shared EU systems for fear of betraying sources and operational methods. There is a “golden rule”, for example, that a service receiving intelligence may not share that with a third party without the permission of the agency supplying the information.
That may be changing as a result of events, with the French in particular pushing strongly for greater pooling of intelligence following the Paris attacks. The French are said to have increased fivefold the volume of information shared via the Schengen systems.
Whether these efforts are enough to rescue Europe’s free-travel zone is unclear. Meanwhile, the Schengen obituaries are being written, not just by pundits but by senior officials involved in the policy-making.
“If the flow of refugees is not slowed down in four to six months, people really think Schengen is in terminal trouble,” said a third ambassador in Brussels.
For the painter and decorator making his modest pilgrimage to the shrine of what he hoped heralded a better, freer and more humane Europe, the death of Schengen is no answer at all to the grave questions thrown up by immigration.
“If you close down the borders, Islamic State has won,” said Rainer Maring. “People are talking about this all the time. They’re a bit worried about all this politics. And one more thing. It might sound stupid and be hard to imagine, but war is still possible in Europe.”