Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Terra Incognita Europe Re-discovers its borders

Terra Incognita: Europe rediscovers its borders
05/17/2011 22:47

The mass of people making their way to EU countries as a result of the Arab Spring has tested the wisdom of the EU’s Schengen Agreement.

Every once in a while, people rediscover something they previously knew. The greatest symbol of this phenomenon was Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, completed in 1511, which showcased how Renaissance Europe was breathing new life into Greek philosophy. But one might also look to Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Not only had it obviously already been discovered by people crossing a land-bridge from Asia, but there is compelling evidence that the Vikings even had a colony at Newfoundland in the 11th century.

Now it seems Europe is rediscovering its borders after 25 years. In 1985, on the Moselle riverboat Princess Marie-Astrid, five European countries signed the Schengen Agreement. Under its conditions, West Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands would abolish passport checks in favor of visual surveillance at border crossings. The Schengen Area was incorporated into the main body of European Union laws, known as the acquis communautaire, in 1997. This meant that all EU member states would be bound by these conventions, which basically abolished many functions associated with borders. New EU member states must implement the convention, that calls for free movement of goods and people.

There are several exceptions. Norway and Iceland are not part of the EU, but are signatories to the Schengen agreement. England and Ireland, both of which are part of the EU, have an opt-out right under the Schengen agreement, which means they maintain the right to determine who enters their countries from other EU states. By 2008, 25 states had eliminated their internal borders. Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, are still in the process of implementing the Schengen agreement. All countries have the right, under Article 2.2 of the treaty, to temporarily suspend the agreement, usually for less than 30 days, if they feel their national security is threatened. France re-imposed some restrictions in the wake of the 2005 bombing attacks in London. Several countries have imposed border checks due to large sporting events like the World Cup, apparently to interdict soccer hooligans.

Problems with Schengen have begun to wear on those states that have embraced it. The UK and Ireland have complained that workers from Eastern European EU countries have exploited the agreement to move in, take over jobs and get benefits. In one comment on a travel website named vegabondjourney.com in 2010, a man wrote: “come in to uk thay [sic] let every polish person in even if thay carnt [sic] speak english, any one can claim benifits [sic] so why not everyone.”

The problem with Schengen is that it applies to all members of the EU, but each country still has the ability to grant residency, citizenship and refugee/asylum status to individuals without consulting the other countries. This means that a person obtaining asylum in one country may end up as a burden on another. Many of those wishing to immigrate or work in Europe come from Africa and the Middle East, and usually attempt to cross into Europe via Greece or Italy. Their intention is to get through the border controls that these “front line” states have in place and, once in Europe, exploit the open borders to move where they want. This means that all the internal European countries must rely on the efficiency and zealousness of Italians and Greeks – qualities for which neither country is particularly known – to safeguard their immigration laws.

The flood of refugees from North Africa in the aftermath of the revolution in Tunisia and the rebellion in Libya has put huge strains on the agreement. In February, the Hungarian president of the EU summoned the interior ministers of several member countries to “look at ways of preventing Arab refugees from flooding Europe. They acknowledged that this is not only a problem for member states in Southern Europe, but also for the entire EU,” according to a report on europa-nu.nl.

In April, Italy granted around 20,000 Tunisians temporary residency permits. Prior to this, the 20,000, almost all men, had been the responsibility of Italy’s border police, who were forced to house them on Italian islands to which they had fled. But the day after the men received EU permits, they began moving to Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, France, where some had family ties.

In response, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office declared that “the governance of Schengen is failing. It seems there is a need to reflect on a mechanism that will allow a temporary suspension of the agreement, in case of a systemic failure of an external (EU) border..., to intervene through a provisional suspension, until such time as the weakness is corrected.”

France saw itself being invaded by unemployed men, some of whom began living in parks in Paris and elsewhere. Sarkozy initially attempted to close the Italian border to the Tunisians, but under pressure from human rights groups and warnings from the EU, he opened it again. Now Denmark has gone further than France, re-imposing checkpoints and customs at its land border with Germany and the bridge that links it to Sweden. Fifteen other EU member states support curtailing the most liberal policies of Schengen.

Andrei Fedyashin of the newspaper RIA Novosti commented that “it appears that Europe has succumbed to good old xenophobia.”

A May 14 headline at the Independent screamed, “Europe is in danger of eroding one of its greatest achievements,” and the editorial claimed that “making it easier for EU member states to close their borders is the worst possible response.”

Yet the Schengen agreement itself was, in a sense, xenophobic. It was initially signed by countries with a common history (Rome, Charlemagne), political system (democracy), economic status (wealthy) and religion (Christianity) – before the advent of mass African and Middle Eastern immigration. Right-wing and Euroskeptic parties such as Finland’s True Finns and the Freedom Party in The Netherlands are demanding that illegal immigrants and legal asylum-seekers not be allowed to overrun their countries. They are right; large numbers of immigrants place a disproportionate burden on small countries, eroding their cultural norms.

Europe is rediscovering its borders, and in doing so, it is realizing that common sense demands that a country not rely on its neighbors to guarantee its security or culture.

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.