Life After Schengen: What a Europe With Borders Would Look Like

  • Paris killings spur calls for tighter internal border controls
  • Truckers wait, and wait, on France's border with Luxembourg

Paying for Europe's Border Control

Continental Europeans have gone so long -- two decades -- without internal border controls that the younger generation doesn’t know what life is like with them. For a glimpse of the past, and the fortress mentality setting in after the Paris terrorist attacks, look no further than France’s frontier with Luxembourg.

Five days after the Paris murder spree, the highway into Luxembourg resembled a truck parking lot, with a two-hour wait as the police stopped and, occasionally, searched.

“What a pain in the neck,” said Alban Zammit, 43, a shaven-headed French truck driver who travels back and forth across the border with cargoes ranging from batteries to sacks of sugar. “Is it just to give people the impression of increased security?”

To grasp the economic toll in the time-is-money society, imagine commuters and truckers lining up for passport checks every morning to take the George Washington Bridge or Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey into Manhattan. Rush hour is slow enough as it is.

Heart of Europe

Luxembourg is central to the border-free story. The Grand Duchy is at the heart of Europe, and every day its population of 550,000 swells by 157,000 commuters taking the train or bus, or driving or carpooling in from bedroom communities in France, Germany and Belgium.

Schengen, a Luxembourg town just across the Moselle river from where Germany meets France, was the site of the signing of the open-borders treaty in 1985. Border controls were fully abolished in 1995, initially between seven countries. Now passport-free travel is the norm between 26 European countries, with the island nations of Britain and Ireland as the notable exceptions.

Some 400 million people live in the zone that makes travel within Europe like travel between American states, with only signs like “Bienvenue en France” to denote a change of country. The European Commission guesstimates that there are 1.25 billion cross-border journeys annually, but the unsupervised nature of the system makes the true number unknowable.

‘Greatest Achievement’

Incantations such as “Schengen is the greatest achievement of European integration” -- intoned by the European Union’s home affairs commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, on Wednesday -- are now coupled with the fear that the system will be rolled back, and in the worst case abolished.

Before the Paris attacks, five countries had temporarily reimposed passport controls to cope with the unprecedented wave of refugees from the Middle East. France followed suit as the Europe-wide manhunt got under way for the Paris culprits.

Brief suspensions are nothing new, and are foreseen during security scares and for countries staging big events like the Group of Seven summit in southern Germany in June or the European soccer championship in Poland in 2012. But never before has there been so much pressure for a wholesale tightening of the system.

The Dutch government has considered calling for a “mini” zone of a handful of countries, but doubts that would be workable, the ANP news service reported, citing unidentified officials.

Border Patrol

For now, the plan is to make better use of a database of known and suspected terrorists, criminals and missing persons. Collection of data on air passengers in and out of the EU is in the works, and a proposal for an EU-flagged border patrol is due in December.

At a meeting in Brussels on Friday, EU justice ministers will consider legislation that requires full passport checks of all travelers entering and leaving the Schengen zone. Currently only non-EU citizens go through that, though Britain, perched outside Schengen, often does a full database matchup on EU citizens.

Friday’s focus is on “how we make sure that Schengen can actually be preserved and is still seen by the European citizen as a working system,” Matthias Ruete, head of the commission’s migration department, told a European Parliament committee in Brussels on Thursday.

Passport-free border-hopping is so ingrained in modern Europe that there have been few studies to isolate the economic impact. In a 2014 paper, researchers Dane Davis and Thomas Gift estimated that two countries adhering to the Schengen accord notch an annual increase of 0.1 percent in bilateral trade.

Brainpower Flow

Davis, now a Wall Street analyst, said the impact is due partly to the output-boosting effect of the flow of brainpower across borders. Foreign workers are also liable to tap into supply chains and distribution networks back home, a tonic for trade.

“The classic example is a Frenchman who chooses to live in Germany and brings with him a taste for French wine,” Davis said. “He may spread that taste for French wine and cheese among the German population, cultivating over time a taste for French products that are imported into Germany.”

Schengen has given rise to numerous metropolitan areas that overlap national frontiers. Across the Oresund strait, an EU-financed bridge has turned Malmoe, Sweden, into a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. Red lights and rush-hour congestion on access roads are the only hassles for the almost 20,000 cars and trucks that cross the water every day; passport checks wouldn’t be good for business.

Back in the center of Europe, Luxembourg’s leaders urged cross-border commuters to take the train, upping rush-hour capacity from northern France by 2,500 seats on Thursday and Friday. For truckers stuck on the road, the only option is to grin and bear it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.