Refugee crisis: The closure of internal borders will not make Europe safer

The openness pioneered by the Schengen Agreement in 1985, and the creation of a unified coastguard, are our best hopes of security, says Daniel Gros

A Syrian refugee girl lines up with her family to cross the Greek-Macedonian border.

ANOTHER key European project is under threat. Two decades after border controls were abolished under the Schengen Agreement — which encompasses 26 countries, including four non-members of the European Union — Germany has reinstated controls at its border with Austria, and France at its border with Belgium.

The controls are temporary, and the vast majority of other borders remain open. But Europe is not becoming more open — and that is a serious problem. The shift away from a “Europe without borders”, instigated by images of refugees walking across internal frontiers, was compounded by the news that most of those who carried out last month’s Paris attacks came from Belgium, and that some may have entered the EU via the Balkans, posing as refugees.

The underlying assumption — reinforced by many European politicians, especially interior ministers — is that there is a trade-off between security and openness. This is far from accurate.

The reinstatement of border controls is an example of security theatre — a policy to make the public feel like something is being done. But rolling back Schengen would hinder the fight against terrorism, because countries would be forced to devote valuable resources — thousands of police officers, if the agreement were abolished — to checking documents at borders instead of investigating terrorist activities.

Those investigations need help. Their objective — to identify a few terrorists among millions of law-abiding citizens, before they commit a violent act — is the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. The recognition of the flawed logic behind reinstating border controls is why police officials have remained guarded in discussing the issue.

When five countries — Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands — agreed in 1985 (in the village of Schengen, Luxembourg) to abolish border controls, they did not do so on a whim, or because some politicians had a lofty vision. Symbolism wasn’t the point. The countries’ security establishments had recognised that stopping people at the internal borders did not counter major threats such as organised crime and drug smuggling.

Truck drivers, who protested against long waits at customs stations, spurred the effort. But it took another decade of hard-nosed, detailed negotiations, entailing strengthening of the EU’s external borders, to reach the point, in 1995, where internal border controls could be lifted. The subsequent decision by non-EU countries, like Switzerland, to join the Schengen Area highlights the massive benefits, including for security, of open borders. Rather than attempt to control the masses of tourists and business travellers entering the country from all sides — an exercise in futility in Switzerland — the country focused police resources on security threats.

By joining Schengen, the Swiss police also gained access to the Schengen Information System, and other important European databases on criminality.

There are flaws in the Schengen system. Like the eurozone, the area began with only a small group of member countries, all of which had a similar outlook and capacity to implement common rules, but soon welcomed many others, some of which could not uphold agreed standards. In the eurozone, imbalances in competitiveness and finances — which were not noted during the perfunctory check, based on formal criteria, that was conducted before new members were approved — led to a protracted economic crisis.

In the Schengen Area, some countries’ inability to protect external borders adequately — owing to a lack of administrative capacity (especially true of Greece, but also, to some extent, of Italy), together with geographic challenges, like long and fractured coast lines — have undermined confidence in the face of the refugee crisis.

The eurozone survived its economic crisis for two key reasons. First, a common institution, the European Central Bank, had the power to act. Second, member states relinquished some control over their banks, to boost the system’s overall stability. If the Schengen Area is to endure, it needs to evolve in a similar direction, establishing a common institution responsible for securing external borders, while reinforcing the framework for internal security.

As it stands, defence of Schengen’s external borders is up to individual member states. Frontex, the only EU-wide operation aimed at policing the external border, is severely limited in scope. The Schengen Area needs a true European coastguard, with its own budget, ships, and personnel. The Mediterranean will remain the main security challenge, owing both to illegal immigration and its proximity to terrorist training grounds. It thus makes sense for the new coastguard, backed by EU funds, to start there.

Moreover, a European coastguard would be flexible. The most urgent challenges can shift. Last year, the problem was southern Italy. Today, it is the Aegean. Tomorrow it may be somewhere else. It is not only possible to have both openness and security; the former can bolster the latter. The Schengen Area’s members must recognise that the security rationale for abolishing internal borders remains as compelling today as when they joined.

Daniel Gros is director of the Center for European Policy Studies. Copyright Project Syndicate 1995–2015

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