Friday, 20 November 2015

Longer waits to get back home for EU citizens

EU interior ministers in Brussels agreed today to put in place the same screening procedures for their own citizens as for foreign citizens at the EU's external borders.

As someone with both US and EU nationality, I've been amazed at the very different experience I encounter when entering each one.

When I go home to New York, I always have to wait in a very long line at JFK airport, even though I am entering with my US passport. I have to fill out a customs declaration form, then bring it to a border guard (after a wait of usually around 40 minutes). He runs it through the database, and asks me a serious of questions. Where have I been? Why do I live in Belgium? What is my job? Where am I staying? The whole interview process can take between three to ten minutes.

Contrast this to my experience coming home to the Schengen area using my Italian passport. I've never once been asked any question at the border. Usually, they just glance at my passport and wave me through. Sometimes they quickly run my passport through a scanner. Given how quick the process is I doubt it's running my name through an extensive database.

Those days of breezily waltzing back into Europe are about to come to an end. Today EU interior ministers held an emergency summit here in Brussels, and they acquiesced to a French request that EU citizens start going through the same security screenings that non-EU citizens do at the EU's external borders.

What this means exactly is still unclear. As far as I understand it, this doesn't mean that EU and non-EU citizens will have to start waiting in the same immigration line. Probably what it will mean is a situation similar to what we have in the US, where foreign citizens go through a very extensive interview with a fingerprint scan, while US citizens go through a shorter interview with no fingerprint scan. Right now the EU has no fingerprint database for foreign citizens entering the Schengen Zone. That may be about to change.

The effect of this will be much longer waits at airports for EU citizens re-entering their home countries. I've always thought that the checks for re-entering Schengen were strangely lax, so I'm OK with this. Apparently one of the Paris attackers was able to easily come in and out of the EU even though he was known by police, which is very alarming.

What I would not be OK with, however, is increased security at the EU's internal borders. Interior ministers are meeting again in early December and apparently changes to both external and internal borders are on the table. There were even very concerning rumors going around today at the summit that an idea floated by the Dutch to create a "mini-Schengen" was gaining traction. 

The idea is to create a smaller passport-free zone between the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria. But Germany was quick to bat those rumors down, saying such an idea was unthinkable. Given how similar it sounds to ideas three years ago to create a similar mini-zone for a new currency, it's quite incredible that the Dutch would even suggest such a thing.

Half-assed integration

There's no doubt that the Schengen area of EU free-travel is in trouble. Like with the Eurozone, the current crisis is the result of European leaders only pursuing integration halfway. They set up a passport-free zone but didn't set up common border security, leaving the peripheral states to shoulder the burden themselves. 

The idea of turning over national borders to an EU border force was just too politically unpalatable. But now we have found that a system done halfway was not able to withstand the pressure of a crisis.

It is the same problem faced by the eurozone four years ago. They established a common currency but didn't establish a common economic governance. And without that second bit, the system came close to collapse under the weight of the debt crisis.

What's clear now is that the EU can either go forward or backward. The current halfway approach does not work. We either need to go all the way, or to roll back what we've done so far. Either national border controls are re-established, or the EU's external borders are turned over to shared EU competence. Either we go back to national currencies, or we establish a common economic governance.

The half-ass approach just doesn't work any more. And if it means I have to wait longer at the airport when I come back to Europe, so be it. Better that than having to wait every time I move between EU states.

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