Keep Europe’s Doors Open

The fact that a terrorist may have hid among refugees is a case for better intelligence, not turning away innocent victims.


“France must regain control over its borders, for good.” So tweeted Marine Le Pen, the leader of the country’s far-right National Front party, which was leading in the polls even before the barbarous Paris attacks of Nov. 13. “The days of uncontrolled immigration and illegal entry can’t continue just like that. Paris changes everything,” intoned Markus Söder, the conservative finance minister of Bavaria, the state where most asylum-seekers have arrived in Germany this year. “Poland must retain full control over its borders, asylum and immigration policy,” wrote Konrad Szymanski, the incoming European affairs minister in Poland’s new nationalist government, declaring that his country could no longer accept refugees due to be resettled under a recently agreed-upon European Union scheme.

Once it emerged that a Syrian passport used to enter Greece in October had been found next to one of the dead terrorists, Le Pen demanded an immediate halt to admitting immigrants into France. (Similarly, in the United States on Monday, senior Republican politicians insisted that President Barack Obama’s administration scrap plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, because of the perceived security risk.)

After a tragedy like last Friday’s, the urge to hunker down is understandable. The horrific attacks by terrorists from the Islamic State targeted ordinary people enjoying themselves on a Friday evening, highlighting the vulnerability of living among strangers. So it is normal to want to try to regain control and protect oneself. And when people’s security is threatened, governments sometimes need to curtail our freedom. But the measures taken ought to be targeted, proportionate, and effective. Closing borders and turning away refugees are none of those things.

The freedom to move across the 26 countries of the Schengen Area without showing your passport is one of the most visible and valued achievements of European integration. It should not be surrendered lightly. Yet even before the Paris attacks, many countries had regrettably followed Germany’s lead in reimposing border controls to limit refugee arrivals, ostensibly temporarily. Now, the danger is a broader move to more permanent controls. That would be a big mistake.

For sure, border controls — and, indeed, checkpoints within countries — may be necessary in specific circumstances, such as the manhunt following the Paris attacks. If a killer is on the loose, the authorities are right to take exceptional measures to try to apprehend him. Yet the top suspect, Salah Abdeslam, still escaped to Belgium on Saturday morning, when the security alert was at its highest. How? Because the police performing the checks were unaware that he had been flagged as a suspect. So even though his ID was checked, he was allowed through. Clearly, border controls are not a substitute for good intelligence.

Let’s be clear: Border controls would not have prevented the Paris attacks. Several of the terrorists were based in France. The Belgium-based ones could have crossed into France unimpeded unless police had known of their intentions. And if police had known about the planned attacks, they could have taken other precautionary measures, such as tracking the would-be terrorists, arresting them, and enhancing security in Paris. Sacrificing freedom by scrapping Schengen without gaining any security would be stupid.

Britain’s recent experience with terrorism provides a useful lesson. While the United Kingdom is not a member of Schengen, it has long been part of a common travel area with Ireland. And for decades, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) planted bombs and killed people in Britain, in pursuit of a united Ireland. The IRA even came close to killing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Stopping the IRA was clearly a top priority for the British state. Yet throughout the period of IRA terrorism, Irish people were able to come to Britain without showing their passports. British security forces relied instead on targeted and effective counterterrorism measures, such as surveillance and informants.

It is also wrongheaded to deny desperate people refuge in Europe (and the United States) because a lone Islamic State terrorist may have infiltrated himself among them. More than 700,000 people have entered the EU without permission this year. Yes, a terrorist may have been among them — but the Islamic State may also want European authorities to jump to that conclusion. In any case, that is hardly a reason to stop welcoming refugees, many of whom are, of course, fleeing the violence of the Islamic State. The fact that Nazis hid among refugees after World War II was a case for trying to identify and apprehend those monsters, not turning away their innocent victims.

To be sure, the EU could do with a more orderly method of processing refugee claims. As I have argued previously, it would make sense to allow people to claim asylum at consulates outside the EU. Their applications could then be processed — and screened — without them needing to risk death to reach Europe.

But shutting the door to refugees would hand a huge victory to the Islamic State. That people are fleeing its supposedly wonderful caliphate in Syria and Iraq is hardly an advertisement for its success. Germany’s lead in welcoming Syrian refugees and the generous attitude of many people across Europe are proof that Europeans are not engaged in a clash of civilizations with Islam. Their instinct is to offer refuge to people in need, whatever their beliefs or background.

The Paris massacre was not just an attack on the French capital. It was an attack on the liberal values and open societies that the Islamic State loathes. The correct response is to defend those liberal values and open societies, not ditch them.

The Islamic State’s aim is not just to kill, maim, and strike terror; it is to rally Muslims to its cause and set Europeans against each other. People like Marine Le Pen, who thrive on hatred and division, must not be allowed to profit from its butchery.


Philippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute. Previously economic advisor to the president of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of four critically acclaimed books, including Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them and European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess—and How to Put Them Right. Twitter: @plegrain

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