Internal Borders Aren't the Answer to EU Terrorism

The counterterrorism benefits of ending the Schengen area are minimal, the costs high.

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Photographer: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

If the first casualty of war is the truth, maybe the second is common sense. It's become common to declare that Europe's borderless travel zone must go if security is to be restored after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Before abandoning part of the European Union's most popular achievement -- freedom of movement -- let's think it through.

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The argument goes roughly like this: Because borderless travel, established in stages through the 1990s and 2000s, never secured Europe's external frontier and intelligence sharing, and because the European Union is too feckless to make that happen now, the best recourse is to resurrect national borders and put the maintenance of security back into the hands of national governments.

Three pieces of evidence are generally provided. First, the Paris attacks were planned in Belgium, a divided state with an ineffectual intelligence service that allowed the Brussels district of Molenbeek to become a safe zone for Europe's jihadists. Belgium's failures thus became the problems of its neighbors, too.

Exhibit No. 2 is that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks and already one of Europe's most wanted men, was able to travel from Syria to Brussels and back again in 2014, without detection.

Finally, weapons: Belgium has a lively black market in arms that can be bought by jihadists and brought onto a train or driven to points-anywhere in the EU to launch an attack. Shut the borders, the theory goes, and Belgium's failure to clamp down on its illegal arms trade becomes less concerning.

It would be absurd to argue that these failures didn't occur. But would repetition be prevented if Europe's internal borders were permanently resurrected, as France has done temporarily after the Paris attacks?

The first thing to say is that even when there were border controls between the 26 European countries that are signatories to the Schengen Agreement that established the free-travel zone from 1995, traffic flows were so great that most cars were waved through, unchecked. That was in the 1980s and '90s, when cars drove at least 500 million fewer passenger miles per year across Europe than they do now. Restoring Europe's internal borders today would be like putting border checks on state lines between New York and Washington. How many cars traveling on I-95 would actually be stopped?

Let's say systematic checks were made, turning I-95 into a parking lot. Even then it would be no panacea. On the night after the Paris attacks, French police set up checks along the road to Belgium and stopped Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, the one Paris gunman who didn't detonate his suicide belt, three times, according to the lawyer of the man who helped him escape. The police let Abdeslam go because they didn't recognize him. The manhunt continues.

How about weapons? Europe's illegal small-arms trade draws on weapons that weren't registered when tougher regulations were imposed in countries such as France. It also involves arms trafficked from the ex-Yugoslav countries (where Bosnians alone are estimated to hold 750,000 private guns left over from the war), and weapons that were neutralized for sale as souvenirs or props and are subsequently reactivated. Restoring Europe's internal borders might help a little with one part of this trade -- imports from the western Balkans -- but not by much, according to Nicholas Marsh, a firearms researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Here's how he described to me the difference between the size of hammer the EU would wield by ending Schengen, and the tiny nail it would be trying to hit:

Even before Schengen came along, you could drive through Europe with hardly any checks at all. Given the amount of commerce and travel, that would be extremely difficult to change now. Then you have the likely number of weapons being trafficked, we're talking about a very small number into France per year, no more than a few hundred. So imagine a car carrying 5 or 10 Kalashnikovs, what is the chance of that car being searched on way into France? You'd be better off playing the lottery.

Far more than in the U.S., where there is a mass consumer market for small arms, this is a problem that can be addressed only by intelligence and undercover police penetrating the buyers and dealers in organized crime gangs. Disturbingly, says Marsh, who co-wrote a recent United Nations report on arms smuggling, Europe's governments have less information on the trade on their territories than do their counterparts in Latin America.

Putting Belgium in an isolation bubble wouldn't fix the problem, either. According to a 2010 French government estimate, there were about 4,000 automatic rifles circulating in Paris suburbs such as Saint-Denis, where Abaaoud was found and killed. Someone determined enough to give up his life is unlikely to be deterred from finding a gun in Paris, if the softer Belgian option is closed.

To address the terrorist threat, Europe's governments would need to do what they should do anyway to bring the Schengen system up to date. They would need to harden external borders, preferably by putting them entirely under a jointly run agency such as the EU's Frontex, using a common terrorist watchlist and fingerprint database. That way, for example, agents at the free-travel zone's Balkan borders -- in Slovenia and Hungary -- could check cars and trains heading north.

The EU should also put more resources into its existing effort to drain the ex-Yugoslav swamp of weapons and should do a better job of clearing out jihadist cells in weak-link countries such as Belgium. But above all, the answer to nearly all these problems is better intelligence and intelligence sharing. That's more likely to happen by modernizing a shared system than by retreating behind resurrected national borders.

If that's still unpersuasive, consider that after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.K. -- not a Schengen member -- was tarred as Europe's weak link in the defense against jihadist terrorism, just as Belgium is now. London was nicknamed "Londonistan" for letting radical preachers recruit in Mosques and for tolerating the sale of al-Qaeda-style literature up and down the Edgware Road. It's where Zacarias Moussaoui was radicalized before joining al-Qaeda's Sept. 11 plot. So was the "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, who tried to bring down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.

Being out of Schengen didn't prevent any of these British failures. Nor did it stop the 7/7 bombings on the London underground in 2005, or smaller attacks since. The answer was to fix what was broken in the approach to Islamist extremism, a work still in progress in Britain and perhaps only now beginning in Belgium.

The EU's proposals to fix Schengen's weaknesses and crack down on Europe's weapons trade since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris certainly aren't enough, and the failure to adjust the free-travel zone's rules to cope with the sudden influx of refugees from Syria is serious. But if the EU's responses are implemented, they would do more to counter the terrorist threat than closing borders, and at a far lesser cost.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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