Of all the concrete reminders of the European Union’s presence in people’s lives, the one they most appreciate, pollsters say, is ability to travel ID-free around the union. This freedom has come under severe attack in recent weeks, led by Western European countries. This is surprising, to some degree, but more surprising was the silence of the eastern members that followed.
When Italian authorities simply rubber-stamped Schengen visas in the passports of some 20,000 Tunisian migrants, many of the Tunisians boarded trains bound for France, where there is a large Tunisian community. The Italians had deliberately breached the Schengen rule that says all asylum or residence requests must be processed in the country where the migrant first enters the Schengen area, in this case Italy. This was the payback after Italy had asked other EU members for help with influx of North Africans, to no avail. French police stopped trains at the border and sent many migrants back into Italy.
France’s Nicolas Sarkozy got furious and demanded an emergency meeting with Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. They emerged from the tête-à-tête with a common solution: the Schengen system must be preserved but at the same time be changed, “corrected” as they put it. The Danes were quick to embrace this solution, presenting the rest of the EU with their unilateral decision to reinstall border posts and document checks after years of free travel into the country.
The official reason the Danes have given for this is the rise of criminality among foreigners. What hard evidence there is points rather to fewer crimes and criminal cases involving immigrants in recent years, but, as one Danish journalist told the Czech weekly Respekt, Danish media began reporting a rise in crime after 2008, when Central and East European EU countries joined the Schengen area – and a year after the re-election of a prime minister who promised to curb immigration. “One can feel the fears of the Danes of the rise in criminality and people think it’s due to the Eastern Europeans here and the open borders,” said Karin Larsen, a Danish radio journalist.
In the French-Italian case, two countries called for the Schengen rules to be changed rather than to play by the current rules. In the Danish case, a decision to interpret the current rules so strictly as to in effect abolish them is being based on the popular mood rather than the facts. People can moan about the eagerness of these West European leaders to water down a system that serves citizens well and inspires proto-blocs elsewhere in the world – and in a not very serious situation, since accommodating 20,000 or so migrants isn’t that big a challenge for a country of 50 million. But that’s how things go in politics sometimes.
But where were the leaders of the newer EU members while all this was happening? Why didn’t they stand up to defend Schengen? Because after all, it is the citizens of these countries for whom the freedom to travel is a new and precious commodity, who value it perhaps more than anyone, and who would be the victims if internal borders are re-erected because of a few thousand North Africans in France and Italy, or a few thousand Poles in Denmark.
They haven’t done anything yet, and if they stay silent it will be for all the wrong reasons.
For some, like the Czech Republic or Slovenia, political agendas come into play. Both these countries’ governments have long opposed the so-called solidarity principle in the case of migration. In other words, they disagree with the proposal still on the EU table to distribute refugees and asylum seekers among member states to reduce the burden on the countries where they usually first enter the union – often, the Mediterranean countries.
It sounds fair and logical: The Schengen system works for the benefit of all its members, so shouldn’t each be partly responsible for accommodating undocumented migrants? Yet the Czechs, like the Slovenes and a few others, counter that it is “questionable” to “solve others’ problems.”
The silence of some other new members, like Hungary and Slovakia, is of a more practical nature. These and the other eastern EU countries are under stress because they must provide security for the entire Schengen zone. And their borders are still porous, even though the richer EU countries help patrol them. Smuggling and trafficking in humans goes on; bribes change hands.
No one is saying it’s easy to guard thousands of kilometers of Schengen border. It’s a challenging duty. But if, at a time when a threat hangs over the whole idea of free travel, these countries do nothing, they send the wrong message to France, Denmark, and their allies. The message goes: We can’t provide security for you and in fact we don’t care if you lock up your borders again – which only heightens the anxieties the Danish reporter expressed and strengthens Denmark’s case for reintroducing border checks.
Recently, the European Commission proposed to make it easier for Schengen members to temporarily re-introduce visas for travelers from countries that currently enjoy visa-free travel.
Membership – be it of the Schengen area, the entire EU or your local fishing club – is about respecting common rules and values. When the basic rules are violated, either the guilty get punished or the club loses its reason for being. The freedom of travel in Europe is not a given, and it’s looking very shaky now.
This column was originally published on the Transitions Online website (www.tol.org) on 25 May, 2011 . Transitions Online covers political, economic and social developments in Central & Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia.