Monday, 15 October 2007

All set for Schengen

We’re getting down to the last months of the year and, surprisingly, we may actually see the Schengen expansion come to pass by year’s end, according to recent reports.

The Schengen Agreement is the system that came into effect in 1995 that got rid of border checks between certain European countries. So now, for instance, when you travel between Germany and France you don’t go through any border check, and when you fly between these countries you don’t have a passport control check point. It was named after Schengen, Germany, where the agreement was signed (there's now a little monument to it there which I've seen, pictured at right).

But, the Schengen membership is different from the EU membership, which makes it rather interesting. The UK and Ireland, for instance, are both in the EU but not part of the Schengen Agreement (they just love that whole ‘island nation’ thing). Norway and Iceland, on the other hand, are not in the EU but are part of the Schengen Zone. So, when I fly from London to anywhere in Europe, I have to go through passport control, which is quite annoying (particularly if you don’t have an EU passport, since they get a separate and shorter line). But if I flew from France to Norway, I would not go through a passport check. Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, is scheduled to join Schengen next year.

Now the time has come for the nine of the ten 2004 EU entrants (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Malta) to join the Schengen zone, which is slated to happen by the end of the year. The nine countries, all former communist states (except Malta), have been busily preparing for accession. Though there had been some healthy skepticism over whether the countries would really be ready in time, apparently they’ve made quite a bit of headway. Last week the FT reported on a confidential report it had obtained that shows many of the countries have made significant progress and they may be ready by the end of the year after all. Poland in particular has apparently made big strides in securing their borders, as has Hungary, which apparently just has to settle the lingering issue of a rather porous border with Croatia. Malta, which has already seen waves of migrant workers from Africa turn up on its shores in anticipation of the switch, is still having problems. But in Eastern Europe, it appears to be going well. The Schengen nations will meet next month to approve the expansion.

No doubt it has been the immense public desire for this change that has spurred these Eastern European governments to act so quickly. There is great symbolic importance to the Schengen expansion, because it would definitively, once and for all, knock down any semblance of the iron curtain, especially psychologically. I mean think about it; this was a border that for 50 years was completely impassable. Now, in just a few months, you won’t even know that you’ve passed the border between Hungary and Austria. For someone who grew up in the Czech Republic looking longingly toward the West but being completely forbidden to go there, being now able to just waltz through without even bringing your passport must be very exciting.

But there are practical reasons as well. Most of these nations are extremely small, and for business and pleasure reasons people need to come and go from them frequently. Imagine if you grew up in Connecticut and had to wait in line for 20 minutes at a border check every time you wanted to leave the state. It’s not so fun. Also, none of these nations wants to be in the unenviable position of being the only one who didn’t make the grade at the end of the year. The Czech public, for example, would not be pleased with their government if suddenly every country around them could go in and out of Germany freely while they still have to wait in a border line. That would be quite humiliating, and spell trouble for the Czech government.

Still, there is great misgiving in the West over this expansion. The Schengen countries all operate under the same rules and guidelines governing immigration and border policing, known as the Schengen Acquis, but the individual countries are still responsible for the policing of their own borders. This means that the Netherlands, which now only has border guards at air and sea ports, will soon be trusting Poland with its own immigration enforcement. This is, to say the least, slightly awkward.

Personally, coming from the US, I don’t understand why the EU doesn’t develop a separate department for border enforcement, one that would be run from a central office in Brussels. This is, after all, the case in the United States. Individual states don’t run their own border policing, that’s the responsibility of a national agency. That way the policies and practices are uniform across the nation. It’s not just a “guideline” as exists under Schengen, it’s an actual federal department that has nothing to do with the individual states in which they’re operating.

Of course if you suggest anything with the word “federal” in it to Europeans and a lot of them freak out. But in this instance, I think it’s yet another case of Europe shooting itself in the foot by only doing something halfway. It’s obvious that some kind border loosening needs to be instituted in the union, after all it doesn’t make sense for goods and services to be freely flowing across borders and not people. But there are legitimate concerns about Western Europe handing off its border security to Eastern Europe. It seems to me that the simple solution would be to have EU border protection be run by the EU.

The problem with this, of course, is that although Schengen now exists under an EU framework and is supervised by an EU body, its membership isn’t the same, it is merely partially overlapping. So one has to ask, should Switzerland really be allowed to join Schengen without joining the EU? And should Norway and Iceland still be allowed to be a part of it? If they weren’t, authority for Schengen could be handed over entirely to the EU and they could start developing a supranational border policing system. Norway and Switzerland have a whole series of these individual treaties allowing them to reap the benefits of being in the EU without actually joining. If the EU wants Switzerland and Norway to join, perhaps they should give them incentives to do so. If those two countries are allowed to have all the benefits of EU membership without actually joining, why on earth would they?

As an aside, I lived in the Czech Republic for some time, and I wouldn’t say that the border security there was any less severe or thorough than in Western Europe. For instance when I first arrived I came in on a flight with my friend Quinn who has a passport from Cameroon, even though she grew up in the US (she has a green card). Her student visa had accidentally been stamped to start two days later than it should have been, and even though she begged and pleaded, they wouldn’t let her in. They made her spend 24 hours in the airport until she could go in to the country. So, I think a lot of the concerns coming from the west are unfounded. I mean these are countries that policed the iron curtain for 40 years, I think they know a little something about border control! But if Western Europeans have so many concerns about it, perhaps they should consider establishing an EU border guard independent of individual EU nations. With time, this may become something that is unavoidable in the end anyway.

No comments: