“Europe has forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic,” said Manuel Valls, the French prime minister. “If Europe can’t protect its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that could be thrown into doubt. It could disappear — not Europe itself, not our values, but the European project, the concept we have of Europe, that the founding fathers had of Europe.”
The European Union — 28 countries and 500 million people — is not really going to disappear just because it cannot agree on how to deal with one or two millon refugees. But one of the great symbols of its unity, the Schengen Treaty that allowed its citizens to move around without passports or border checks, is being suspended, perhaps forever.
Schengen does not cover every single EU country. The United Kingdom and Ireland remain outside the Schengen Zone, and Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, all new EU members, are still waiting to join. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are part of the Schengen Zone although they are not EU members. But it does include over 400 million people.
It is a remarkable achievement. You could get into your car in Portugal and drive all the way to Finland via Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia without ever once having to show a passport or identity card. There would not even be anybody in uniform standing at the frontier to wave you past, just a sign by the side of the road saying “Welcome to (Country X)”.
Or rather, that was the situation until last month, when Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Austria re-imposed passport checks at their borders, ports and airports even for travellers arriving from other Schengen Zone countries. France acted even earlier, declaring emergency controls on its borders after the terrorist massacre in Paris in November. So now fully half of the EU’s citizens (counting the UK and Ireland) live behind real borders again.
The new border controls are alleged to be temporary measures, which the Schengen Treaty permits for a maximum of six months in the face of some unspecified emergency. But the refugee emergency is not going to fade away by next July and the threat of terrorism will persist for the foreseeable future.
That is why the European Commission is now examining how the legal framework of Schengen can be fiddled to allow a further two years of controls on the EU’s internal borders. Nobody doubts that they will find a way to do that — but a great many people doubt that the passport-free zone, once suspended for that long, will ever come back.
This is happening not because Germans fear French travellers or Swedes fear Danes. It is happening because none of them believe that the external borders of the Schengen Zone are properly controlled.
Even in freeezing January weather 35 000 refugees entered the EU last month, and it looks set to be another million-refugee year. And two of the men who carried out the Paris attacks crossed from Turkey to Greece (a Schengen member) as refugees. You cannot call that a secure external frontier
The three countries that took in 90% of last year’s refugees, Germany, Austria and Sweden, have all blamed Greece for letting so many refugees in and failing to document them properly.
“Greece has one of the biggest navies in Europe,” said the Austrian interior minister, Johana Mikl-Leitner. “It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected.”
The Greeks quite reasonably ask what their big navy is supposed to do. Sink the refugee boats? As for the failure to register all the refugees properly, they point out that at peak flow last autumn more than 10 000 were arriving each day. They did not have enough officials and equipment to cope with such numbers: 40 fingerprint machines running non-stop around the clock can only deal with about 4 000 people a day.
There is even talk of suspending Greece from the Schengen Treaty for two years, but a better solution would be to give it the people and resources needed to document everybody who comes in — and to turn back those who have no right to come in.
It is not just a question of screening out possible terrorists, although that must be done better if confidence in Schengen is to be restored.
In practice, Greece (or EU officials operating in Greece) would also have to decide at the border who is really a genuine refugee they are obliged to admit and who should be returned immediately to Turkey.
The brutal truth is that most of the people crossing from Turkey into Greece, including the Syrians and Afghans who come from war-torn countries, are “asylum-shoppers”. They were already safe in Turkey, which is sheltering almost two million Syrian refugees and spending billions of dollars a year on them. But life in the camps in Turkey is hard, so they are moving on to seek asylum in richer countries with better facilities.
There is no obligation for Europe to take them all, and the Schengen Treaty will die if it does. But the European Union itself will soldier on without it, at least until and unless the euro currency collapses when the next recession hits.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.