A generation without borders: Schengen’s future after Paris

Article published on Nov. 18, 2015
Article published on Nov. 18, 2015

The recent devastating attacks in Paris have only added to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Schengen Zone. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, recently referred to the need to save the project as a “race against time”. As border checks tighten all over the continent, let’s not forget the remarkable benefits of what has already been achieved.

For 23 years, I was lucky enough to never have much trouble with borders. The quirk of my birthplace placed me squarely amongst the winners of the passport lottery, as a citizen of a European Union whose core underlying values include the free movement of people and labour. Across the continent, there is a generation of young people who have grown up without viewing Europe's borders as an obstacle.

Following last weekend’s tragic events in the French capital, international discourse turned once again to the issue of borders — already a heated debate thanks to the ongoing refugee crisis. One of François Hollande’s first actions after the attacks was to re-establish passport checks at French borders. Now, he is calling for stricter measures across the whole of Europe. The front pages of many UK newspapers were emblazoned not with images that emphasized the grief of Parisians, but with photos of the terrorist attackers, or calls for even stricter border control, in some cases highlighting the terrorists' supposed links to refugee routes from Syria.

Of course, as ever, there are two sides to the debate. There are those calling for a united effort, both within Europe and beyond it, to react appropriately to the tragedy. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, said in an address following the Paris attacks: “If the 28 member states of the European Union stick together we are strong; divided, we are weak.” However, this view is far from universally received. Many Schengen countries were already implementing stricter border checks even before the Paris attacks, including Hungary, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, and Sweden.

Terrorism seeks to promote exactly this kind of division and fear. The Schengen Zone helps ensure that the rights of all of its citizens – to a home, a job and a family life – are protected. Those calling for a tightening of border controls are also calling for a lessening of their own rights; rights they may not be aware are so fragile until they begin to be taken away.

I'm a UK citizen, but trips within Schengen have accompanied many important moments in my life. As a child, I was whisked away by both parents on reconciliatory post-divorce adventures. At 18, I took part in that grand right-of-passage for the European teen, the Interrail trip, crossing 7 countries without once flashing a passport. Now I live and work in a country of which I am not a citizen, without ever needing to apply for a visa. None of this would be possible without the ideals of freedom of movement.

I was also within the Schengen Zone when I encountered my first ever border difficulty. Flying back from Berlin the week after my wedding, my American wife was refused entry into the UK at Heathrow. Now, thanks to European migration law, I am able to stay with her in France.

The thing about living in an era of free movement is that you tend not to be ready for such issues to affect you. It is harder to empathise with the difficulties of border crossing, especially in life threatening circumstances, when you have never experienced such difficulties yourself. Having been present in Paris during the tragic events of the 13th of November 2015, having witnessed the outpouring of grief and solidarity from all corners of the continent, I am even more thankful for Schengen’s open borders.

Using the actions of a pitiless few to condemn a project which has helped a generation of young Europeans be more open, more culturally sensitive, more welcoming to those fleeing oppression: this plays right into the hands of the very ideology of terror that it simultaneously seeks to deplore.

Dismantling the Schengen Zone, even in a minor way, will do nothing to prevent the potential for future terrorist activity in Europe; it will only add to an atmosphere of fear and intolerance that fosters such radicalisation. This is precisely the aim of those seeking to forward their own political agenda by tying the refugee crisis to events in Paris. This is also an aim of ISIS, as emphasised by the discovery of a fake Syrian passport at the scene of the massacre.

Many of the terrorists carrying out these attacks were European citizens. Pretending otherwise, scaring people into believing terror is a wholly external problem, persuading people that closing Europe's borders will be the thing that keeps them safe — all this just furthers the aims of the attackers.

Europe’s open borders, and freedom of movement, are an outstanding testament to the ideals of freedom, inclusiveness and equality — ideals that extremism aims to destroy. Returning to the cold, familiar embraces of nationalism and sovereignty is a step back that we can’t afford to take. These attacks cannot be allowed to succeed in unravelling the progress that’s already been made.

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, delivers an address following the terrorist attacks in Paris on the 13th of November 2015.