Schengen and European Security

BRUSSELS – Another key European project is under threat. Some two decades after border controls were first abolished under the Schengen Agreement – which now includes 26 countries, including four non-members of the European Union – Germany has reinstated controls at its border with Austria, and France at its border with Belgium. The controls are meant to be temporary, and the vast majority of other borders remain open. But more openness does not seem to be the direction in which Europe is headed – and that is a serious problem.

The shift away from a “Europe without borders,” instigated by images of refugees walking across internal frontiers, was fortified by the news that most of those who carried out last month’s Paris attacks came from Belgium, and that some may have entered the EU via the Balkans, posing as refugees. The underlying assumption – reinforced by many European politicians, especially interior ministers – is that there is a tradeoff between security and openness. This is far from accurate.

In fact, the reinstatement of border controls seems to be an example of “security theater” – a policy intended to make the public feel like something is being done. But, far from making Europeans safer, rolling back Schengen would actually hinder the fight against terrorism, because countries would be forced to devote valuable resources – thousands of police officers, if the agreement were to be abolished altogether – to checking documents at borders. Those resources would no longer contribute directly to investigations into terrorist activities.

And those investigations need all the help they can get. After all, the objective – to identify a few terrorists hiding among millions of law-abiding citizens, before they commit a violent act – is the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. The recognition of the flawed logic behind reinstating border controls is probably why police officials have remained guarded in discussing the issue.