How to Save the Schengen Zone

The treaty that provides for free movement of people through Europe is under threat from all sides. Here’s how to rescue it -- and all that it stands for.

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 08: Arriving at Passport Control at Tegel Airport pictured on May 08, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 08: Arriving at Passport Control at Tegel Airport pictured on May 08, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images)

Even before the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month, the Schengen Agreement, which has largely removed barriers to internal movements of people across 26 European countries, was in trouble: A steady flow of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war and violence elsewhere in the Middle East had led to deep political strains, “temporary” fences and border closures, and finger pointing among member states. But now, with reports indicating that those involved in the Paris attacks made good use of Schengen’s open borders, entering Europe through an overwhelmed Greece, and using Belgium as a staging ground to attack the French capital, the treaty is under more pressure than ever.

An end to Schengen would have major consequences. Observers and policymakers alike have rightly noted that freedom of movement within the EU has been a vital centerpiece of the broader European political project. In a very practical sense, the ability to pass from sovereign state to sovereign state freely without showing a passport is a core success of the European Union’s unique system of twenty-first century governance. While many people talk about globalization, only in Europe can workers, retirees, and students alike freely live, work and study in any of the EU’s member states, earning salaries, taking classes, and generally living as if they were locals. It would be as if Mexicans, Canadians, and U.S. citizens could move and live freely, without barriers — something unimaginable to most of us.

But while its material and economic effects are readily visible, less appreciated is the degree to which Schengen is also important to the long run legitimacy of the EU as a political arrangement — which is why we must work to save it.

Amid this scramble to resurrect old barriers, it’s worth remembering that the era of hard borders is, in fact, a relatively recent one. Before the rise of today’s modern nation states, rulers had few ways to control the movements of people in and out of their territories. Territories themselves often overlapped in a patchwork of different authorities — popes and bishops, monarchs and lords, wealthy burghers, as well as early forms of today’s governments. The ability to classify people as citizens, to mark them with documentation, and to systematically control their movements was a hard-won power. The invention of the passport, which only came into its present form at the turn of the last century, brought about a new technology for exercising this power that profoundly changed the relationship of the governed to their territories, as well as the relationship of citizens in one country to citizens in another; it also gave the modern state a powerful new tool to shape the identity of its citizens. When the European Union created the legal category of “EU citizen” in 1992, and began issuing its standardized burgundy colored passports, it signaled a profound update to the model of the sovereign nation state — and created a new, if subtle, source of identity for those possessing these documents.

For decades the European single market had been dismantling barriers to the movement of goods, services and capital within the EU. But when Schengen did away with the systematic use of passport checks within its members, the lived experience of those within the free movement area changed dramatically. Beginning first with a core group of states (Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) in 1985 and gradually spreading to encompass 26 European states (including 4 non-EU signatories), Schengen, although not formally an EU treaty, came to be a symbolic and practical hallmark for the project of European integration.

Open borders today play a critical role in shaping the symbols and practices of what I have called “everyday Europe.” When German pensioners move to Costa Brava, when Italian software engineers take jobs in Dublin, when Slovakian university students study history in Lisbon, their experiences of daily life are reframed within a new common European space. It is the sum of these mundane, daily experiences that form part of the basis for the European Union as a “natural” political authority, one that can take its place alongside nation states despite its novelty and uniqueness. Consider the border between France and Spain, on the coast of the Bay of Biscayne, in the Basque region. Where Hitler once met with Franco to ask for Spanish support, there is no longer any physical experience of a boundary between two countries. The old booths housing border guards have been torn down, and cars whizz by without stopping. Passengers on trains traveling from Antwerp to Paris likewise move across national borders with no sense of their passage from Belgium to France — or they did, at least, until now.

It is clear now there was a fatal flaw in this scheme: European leaders, quite simply, didn’t finish the job. Unlike the modern nation-state, the EU did not exert control over its external borders as internal borders fell, but rather, allowed member states to continue their highly variegated approaches to border policing. Nor did it centralize and consolidate its internal intelligence services, but left the monitoring and surveillance of suspected criminals and terrorists up to individual member states. Just as with the EU’s other recent existential challenge, the eurozone crisis, the union is grappling with a severe case of incomplete political development. Creating a euro without the array of supporting political, fiscal, and banking institutions to support it created the mother of all currency crises. Now we are seeing how the dismantling of internal borders without the construction of a new internal security regime has severely exacerbated both the humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees and contributed to the tragedy of Paris.

Hardening the borders within Europe may help alleviate some of these problems, while satisfying calls for action from uneasy publics. But such internal hardening is not costless. In addition to the administrative and economic challenges it will create, resurrecting borders within Europe has the potential to erode the social foundations for legitimate governance in the EU. As travel within Europe once again begins to look like and feel like crossing into foreign territory, the common identity that comes from the everyday practices of European mobility will erode. Dismantling Schengen would redraw the imagined community of Europeans, weakening their common sense of belonging and shared identity and ultimately making responses to the refugee and terrorist challenges even harder.

But Schengen doesn’t have to crumble; there are practical steps that Europe can take to maintain its viability. First, the EU should focus on collectively hardening its external borders, ensuring that there is no weak link that would make the Schengen zone easily permeable to future security threats. Europe already has the framework for these tasks in its FRONTEX agency, established in 2004 to coordinate border management. It’s true that FRONTEX needs dramatic upgrades. The Warsaw-based agency has struggled to operate with its meager budget of just €114 million at the start of 2015. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a budget of over $10 billion.)

It has earned criticism for a range of operational shortcomings, from not aggressively acting to enhance border control management to making data errors when counting up the number of migrants entering Europe. Fortunately, FRONTEX’s budget is already slated to rise by at least 50 percent in response to the refugee crisis. The EU should use this opportunity to turn FRONTEX into the kind of external border agency the continent needs — one that’s capable of handling refugee flows in an orderly fashion and keeping security threats from entering Europe in the first place.

Equally important, the member states of the EU must share sensitive information in real time and develop the capacity to store and analyze that information to prevent future tragedies. Efforts on the part of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, to change EU policy that prohibits collecting and storing airline passenger name records (PNR) data — information U.S. officials consider central to counterterrorism intelligence — have floundered in the past due in part to Europe’s strong privacy laws. It is likely, however, that such proposals will now go forward. In addition, while the past five or so years has seen much upgraded internal intelligence sharing across the EU within the EUROPOL system, bureaucratic hurdles still exist to sharing information across the national intelligence services; it is clear that more capacity now must be built at the European level if borders are to remain open.

This past weekend, national interior ministers hastily meeting in Brussels quickly came to a series of agreements moving towards enhanced data sharing, including movement on PNR records, upgraded tracking of suspected terrorists within Europe, and strengthened checks on all entering the Schengen zone. These are all good things, and comments on the parts of national leaders and European officials suggest that any border controls within Europe currently being erected are still intended to be temporary.

But in the short term, the disruption of Schengen will disrupt the ongoing process of reframing Europeans’ mental maps. The sense of collective belonging generated through freedom of movement may end up being an unintended but important casualty of the Islamic State’s attacks. Historically, not all new governance forms have survived. (Few of us mourn the loss of the Hanseatic league, for instance, or the Italian city states.) The complex interplay of political leadership, administrative deftness on the part of EU officials, and the resilience of publics across Europe will determine whether this moment of crisis extends the European project, or dramatically erodes it. What happens with Schengen now may later be seen as a turning point: the moment Europe began to unravel, or when it decided to build the collective institutions necessary for its survival.

Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images

Kathleen McNamara is associate professor and Director of the Mortara Center for International Studies at Georgetown University and the author of “The Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union.”