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Free Travel in Europe Could Be a Casualty of the Paris Attacks

6 minute read

Along with the rising death toll—which climbed to at least 129 in Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris—critics of Europe’s security policies were keeping another tally on Saturday: How many of the E.U.’s internal borders did the attackers cross on their way to the massacre? Though investigators could take a while to establish that figure, the initial reports don’t look good for one of the bedrock principles of the European Union.

On Saturday evening, the police chief in Greece said the Syrian passport found near one of the attackers had crossed into Europe via the Greek island of Leros, a prime landing point for this year’s influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. A Greek minister said that the 25-year-old Syrian had arrived with a group of nearly 70 refugees. But depending on his route to Paris from Greece, the gunman would have needed to cross at least a few borders inside the E.U.

So would the weapons they reportedly planned to use in their killing spree. According to German police, a cache of guns, explosives and hand grenades was intercepted on its way to Paris on Nov. 5, leaving the German authorities with “reasonable grounds to assume” that the arsenal was meant for the Paris attackers. The arrest of the man smuggling these weapons—a 51-year-old from Montenegro—came down to a lucky spot check on the border between Germany and Austria.

On a typical day, that frontier would be wide open under the E.U.’s travel regulations, much like all the borders between the 26 European countries that make up the so-called Schengen zone. Within this area of more than four million square kilometers, home to more than 400 million people, travelers are usually allowed to pass without so much as slowing down at national borders.

This marvel of convenience has been one of the proudest achievements of the European Union, which has long stood as proof that security does not need to come at the cost of openness. Quite the opposite, after a century that saw two world wars fought on European soil, the E.U. showed how peace could be achieved not by building walls but destroying them. In 2012, the E.U. was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “[having] contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.”

This system has, however, not adapted so well to the insidious security threats that characterize the age of terrorism. On Friday night, the first reaction of the French government to the unfolding carnage was to seal off the country, which seemed like a logical step. Open borders might have helped the terrorists and their accomplices escape, just as it seems to have helped them bring weapons and explosives into France. But the decision to close the borders—which was not done in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January—still felt like another blow to architecture of the Schengen zone, which was already starting to crack well before the latest attacks in Paris.

Over the past few months, as hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers have come pouring into the E.U. from the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, several E.U. states have begun building fences and restoring security controls at Schengen borders that had previously been wide open. In August, nine European countries, including France, demanded tighter security at borders within the Schengen zone after three American tourists managed to thwart a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train.

Following that incident, which saw a well-armed gunman cross two Schengen borders by train before his attempted attack, the top police official in France, Bernard Cazeneuve, “invited” the European Union to tighten its internal borders—or as he put it, “to examine a targeted amendment to the Schengen frontier code allowing controls where necessary and when necessary.”

That invitation was politely dismissed. The E.U.’s executive body, the European Commission, said that the Schengen principle of open borders was “non-negotiable.” Any participating country that feels the need for increased security measures could impose them, the Commission added, “if they do not have an effect equivalent to border checks.” That means spot checks in or around the border, and a police presence on trains, but no permanent border posts or checkpoints where travelers or cars pass control and are searched at random.

The E.U.’s insistence on freedom of movement isn’t hard to understand. At a time when Eurosceptic parties are increasingly challenging the wisdom of the grand European project, free travel remains one of the main arguments for political integration. In an E.U.-wide survey conducted this spring, more than half of respondents (57%) said the free movement of people and goods across borders is the most positive outcome of the E.U.’s creation; even the benefits of peace among member states received less praise (55%) from Europeans.

But that same survey, which was conducted before the summer’s tide of refugees, also found a spike in public fears over security. Asked to name their main concerns, the greatest number of respondents (38%) cited immigration, while the threat of terrorism troubled 17% of Europeans, a jump of six percentage points in the course of a year. In the wake of the worst attack France has faced in decades, those worries seem likely to grow, and French politicians have already begun using the tragedy to call for tighter border restrictions.

Among them was the conservative lawmaker Jacques Myard, who declared on Saturday that the Schengen’s policy of open borders is a failure when it comes to national defense. Though he conceded that nothing could ensure “total security,” Myard told the BBC, “We have to be very conscious that we are at war.” His choice of words—“an act of war”— also came up in the French President’s description of the Paris attacks on Saturday. “Faced with war,” President François Hollande said in a televised address, “the country has to take appropriate decisions.” One of these decisions was France’s indefinite suspension of the Schengen rules on open borders. The country’s security, at least for now, would have to come at the cost of openness.

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