A fundamental re-think of Schengen has to occur as a first step in the light of the new terrorist environment. Sadly and to put it mildly, fundamental re-thinks are not attributes that are strong points in the repertoire of the EU and the European Parliament. It is something nevertheless that we all need to address for our own safety and individual human rights.
While it might be hard to believe now that there were days when one had to stop at every country border in the Continent of Europe for passport and customs checks. Potentially at that time one of the positive aspects of the EU, as far as travellers and lorry drivers were concerned, was the Schengen Agreement, signed first in 1985, whereby border checks on the Continent were abolished and there was unhindered travel. However, the UK and Ireland had concerns about this Agreement (rightly as it has turned out) and secured OPT-OUT whereby they could continue to impose passport and customs checks at all ports of entry. All other EU member states are legally obliged by EU Treaty to join the agreement.
The Schengen Agreement did not anticipate terrorism. The real weakness of a borderless environment has in recent weeks been fully exposed through the massacre in Paris, although doubtless for some time this borderless environment has aided criminals, people trafficking, and transfers of drugs and arms. It is now feasible for terrorists and criminals to move freely from country to country on the Continent and, even worse, traffic lethal weapons from EU member state to state with NO checks.
After the Paris massacre, France immediately declared a state of emergency and has since said that this will continue for at least three months and possibly indefinitely until “all terrorist threat has been eradicated”. This will probably mean years or decades. France has imposed border controls as part of its action against terrorism. For a different reason, namely the uncontrolled flux of migrants, Hungary has sealed off the country with a fence and restricted free movement across its borders. Many other EU member states are following suit. Victor Orban, the Prime Minister, is calling for EU Treaty change to achieve a fundamental re-writing of the Schengen Agreement.
Various commentators have now said “Schengen is dead”. Even Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, has admitted that the Schengen zone is “partially comatose”. However, it is not quite as simple as that. Adherence to the Schengen Agreement is part of Treaty obligations for member states. Juncker is now warning that if Schengen is not re-established and free-movement of people re-instated, its collapse could take down the Eurozone and the Euro as a single currency.
The EU is like a “rabbit caught in the headlights”, trying desperately to maintain its concept of free-movement, and hoping to save face by proposing that the Schengen Information System (SIS) may be used legitimately to scan passports at borders. This SIS, however, is fairly rudimentary…a computer database that only contains alerts for wanted criminals, known terrorists and stolen passports. Even SIS officials have estimated that it will take a year or more to have in place a functional, useful, and properly working system.
In the UK, we should be ALERT to all this. If the EU in its ponderous bureaucratic way does get round to proposing a new Schengen Agreement, it would probably take years to agree this even with support from the required majority of EU member states and the qualified majority voting rules, and without UK support. We are only one of twenty-eight. With a new agreement, the UK’s existing opt-out to the original Schengen becomes worthless and we either comply or try to agree another opt-out, which may not be easy.
Meanwhile in all of this kind of terrorist situation, the UN reacted rapidly and a resolution was passed quickly and unanimously (an unusual event!) that UN members could take whatever measures they deemed necessary to control their borders.
Does the UN resolution trump the EU Treaty? Who knows? It could be a fascinating international legal debate. However, there can be little doubt in view of the threat that EU countries must re-establish border checks and controls.
Given that freedom of movement of goods, services and people seems so fundamental to the EU concept, could Schengen be the final straw that breaks the back of the EU camel?