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Europe’s Passport-Free Zone Needs to Remain Free

With the increasing terror threat in Europe, even politicians from mainstream parties are beginning to toy with the idea of reintroducing national border checks inside the Schengen Area. This area consists of 26 European countries that have agreed to abolish internal border controls. ‘Schengen’ includes the so-called ‘compensatory measures’ that take into account the interests of the signatory governments and incorporate the Schengen Information System, better judicial cooperation, a common visa policy and controls at the external borders.

Unfortunately, responding to the terror attacks in Paris in January 2015, certain politicians have called for national borders being gradually reintroduced. In some cases, policy proposals may just be using sloppy language; in other cases there is an intention to go back to the old days.

For example, there has been talk of ‘strengthening of border security with targeted controls’. Under the current Schengen regime, national authorities are allowed to conduct routine police checks on their territory but are not allowed to undertake border controls, except for strictly limited periods of time. Executing police authority inside a member state is a country’s duty.  Imposing ‘targeted controls’ could mean a return to border checks, a highly questionable move. 

There has also been talk about introducing ‘internal border checks’. The existing Schengen Border Code states that ‘internal borders may be crossed at any point without a border check on persons being carried out.’ Schengen rules are exactly about that, about NOT requesting travellers’ documentation on the internal borders. ‘Internal border checks’ would thus abolish the main pillar of Schengen. The complex architecture of Schengen rules would simply collapse – there would not be much ‘Schengen’ left.

Another phrase that has appeared is ‘an intelligent use of the ‘Schengen internal control mechanism’. The problem is that there is no such thing as a Schengen internal control mechanism.’ If this were to mean a better sharing of data within the Schengen Information System or better judicial cooperation, that would help to catch suspected terrorists. But if this were to mean internal border checks, it would be a move contrary to the letter and spirit of the Lisbon Treaty.

Schengen is not some ‘naïve’ project that has simply abolished internal borders controls. Schengen consists also of many measures which could help us in fighting terrorism. For example, police cooperation, judicial cooperation in criminal matters, control of firearms, guarding and policing the external border of the Schengen Area and a better operation of the Schengen Information System could all help in identifying and tracking suspects. All these activities can be made to operate better, without internal borders in Europe being reinstated. As a related point, including Romania and Bulgaria in the Schengen Area would help in tackling terrorism as the sophisticated internal Schengen rules would have to be applied by these countries.

So rather than introducing new legislation, let us make better use of our existing rules and let us invite Romania and Bulgarian to join Schengen. That way we would do a better job in preventing further deaths in Europe. And if we come to a conclusion that the Schengen Border Code needs to be amended, preserving the legality of controls will be extremely important.

It has been said many times before but it is worth repeating: Islamic jihad and other forms of terrorism have succeeded when they have made us curtail our rights and liberties. Let us not make the terrorists’ ‘job’ any easier.

(with thanks to an anonymous reviewer)