Ghost of Borders Past: Old borders present new challenges for Schengen

Border Management Magazine - March 2019

Schengen’s futuristic vision is now tempered with some old-school wisdom.

Roderick Parkes writes that the Schengen Agreement’s borderless ideals are rubbing up against some hard border realities. Is the Schengen dream in danger of being relegated to history?

This year the ghost of Europe’s future crashes into the ghost of Europe’s past. The Schengen Project is Europe’s futuristic initiative to lift passport controls and allow people to travel the European continent freely. It is about to turn 35. But it reaches this landmark during the most savage crisis in its history, one which has seen massive numbers of refugees moving up through Greece and Italy, as well as terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. 

European politicians are desperately trying to resuscitate the original sense of utopianism – the idealism which inspired an earlier generation of statesmen to launch this project. They are largely failing.

2019 marks the centennial of a very different kind of border management – one we Europeans thought to have left behind. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference was a well-meaning but misguided attempt to redraw national boundaries along rational lines, and it ended up pleasing nobody. The problems of that era are flooding back. 

Greece, Poland, Estonia – they each fear that their borders are under threat from revanchist states like Russia and Turkey. Century-old border grievances in Syria and Iraq are at the root of the terrorist and refugee crises in France and Germany. Schengen was meant to have banished this border geopolitics. 

It has been a rude awakening for the countries which launched Schengen and nurtured it for the three decades. They had more or less forgotten that border management could be difficult. 

The Schengen project, remember, was dreamt up by a small cluster of countries in the cosy north-west corner of Europe. West Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg began preparations to lift borders in 1985. In the decades since, these five states expanded border-free travel until it stretched right out to Poland and down to Malta. In the process, their own border controls largely disappeared.

Or more precisely, their front-line border controls were now operating far from their territory. These north-western European governments distilled their recipe for border cooperation into 3,000 pages of technical standards. And they exported this rulebook to their neighbours. In effect, they were taking the familiar model of ‘pre-frontier’ checks which works so well for major airports – FRA or CDG – and for globalised ports – Rotterdam or Antwerp – and they had super-sized it. 

Poland exercised border controls for Germany. And it, in turn, co-opted its neighbour Ukraine into carrying out border checks, with the promise that Ukraine could one day join Schengen. And so on and so forth.

But Poland and Schengen’s other peripheral members had never lost their memory of border geopolitics. 

Take Greece: it insists German coast guards should patrol the Aegean, making them taste life on Europe’s front line. Bulgaria and Romania have not yet been permitted to join Schengen. But they scrupulously adhere to its rules: they want to show that they are excluded from the club only because they provide it with a useful buffer to the Balkans and Middle East. Or Cyprus. It joined the European Union back in 2004, but it never joined Schengen, apparently for fear of attracting migrants from unstable Lebanon and Syria who might use the island as a stepping stone to mainland Europe.

Ahead of its 35thbirthday, there has been a political shift inside Schengen. Schengen’s futuristic vision is now tempered with some old-school wisdom. The original gang of five are no longer making the weather. The balance of political power in Schengen has tipped away from the founder countries and towards the peripheral ones – in particular to those which guard the eastern flank of Schengen and the EU. 

It is Poland, Hungary and Italy which draw most of the attention. In their hands European border management is becoming ‘border protection’. But when it comes to positively shaping Schengen border standards, it is probably Finland, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria which are most influential. 

For the world’s border professionals, it is worth keeping an eye on this shift. After all, Europeans still think of border management as something they excel in. 

The European Union sponsors borders projects in spots across Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. It offers logistical support to the Brussels-based World Customs Organisation. It dominates the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe. And it has put one of its former officials in charge of the International Organization for Migration. Moreover, the EU still exports Schengen rules world-wide as if these were the gold standard. 

These rules look set to change direction in at least three ways:

A return to border professionalism is the first shift. Migrants, terrorists, smugglers have all succeeded in gaming Schengen and its tangled web of identity databases. Just google ‘Eurodac’ for a case-study. 

The EU initially tried to fix the problem by further automation. But it turns out that the Schengen borders which held up best in the crisis were the ones with large numbers of well-trained staff. These staff were able to differentiate regular travellers from irregular ones. They spotted forged documents. They defused border tensions with a quick phone call to a counterpart in a neighbouring state. 

The EU has proposed setting up its own central border force with some 10,000 staff. But expect a backlash from its member governments: this proposal would siphon off around 10 percent of all Europe’s border officials, and states here have learnt the value of border guards with local knowledge.

A sharpening of Europe’s border standards is the second trend. 15 years ago, the Schengen Project rolled out its model of “Integrated Border Management’. IBM boasts ambitious ways of getting neighbouring states to fuse their border checks and lighten controls. But it turns out that IBM is not so integrated after all. This model deals mostly with flows of people. 

After all, Schengen is a passport union. But the EU also comprises a customs and a military union. And all three of these border regimes have developed quite separately from each other. Given that migrants these days are being smuggled like any other contraband; and flows of goods and people are being ‘weaponised’ by Europe’s rivals, expect to see the customs and the military integrated into IBM. 

And finally – finally – the EU is showing a readiness to learn from other parts of the world. The original Schengen members were always keen to despatch their personnel to the Balkans or Middle East to teach them about borders. Their hosts welcomed them with polite bemusement: what could their regions, regions with a lot of borders, learn from countries like Luxembourg which had almost none? 

Those days are now over. Schengen officials are still in demand abroad, but it is for a new reason. Countries are keen to host Schengen experts – not for their expertise so much as to teach them about the realities of border geopolitics in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And Schengen members are, at long last, listening. The door is now open for IOM, WCO and OSCE to build a more equal relationship with the EU.   

*This article was written in a personal capacity.

Dr Roderick Parkes is a senior researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, where he works on issues of international home affairs cooperation. Previously, he was at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin (2005-2009) before moving to Brussels and establishing SWP’s liaison office to the EU and NATO (2009-2012). In 2012, he moved to the Polish Institute of International Affairs, PISM, in Warsaw, where he ran the Europe programme. From late 2014, he spent a year at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) to look into the EU’s refugee crisis. He is the author of the report ‘Nobody Move: Myths of the European Migration Crisis’.

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