Living like Keith Aitken
in the EU 27, I look forward to his articles on our northern neighbour France. His pieces are always insightful, or at least I thought so until he launched his paean of praise for the Schengen Agreement. With Mme Le Pen still capturing as many French votes as she does, and with President Macron having written in the Guardian
in March 2019 of the 'need to rethink Schengen', surely it is not asking too much to have hoped for a more rounded view from Montpellier of this complex issue.
Not that I dispute for one second his assessment of its utility. Certainly it has that in spades for middle-aged expats succumbing to the minor frisson of observing overt cannabis use in Bologna la dotta. Equally, I agree that it is viewed by many in the EU as a significant tangible benefit, from what the UK Brexit debate has clearly shown to be the often abstract and intangible phenomenon that is the EU. Though I would add the proviso that it is a benefit probably more appreciated amongst the well to do than by the whole demos.
Rather do I question his apparent failure to appreciate quite how controversial the agreement has become in the EU in recent years under the twin onslaught of international terrorism and uncontrolled economic migration – the latter not from the east but from the south. And quite how many times it has been temporarily partially suspended as a result.
As I write, seven of the 22 EU states in the existing Schengen system are operating partial opt-outs. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria, northern states all, currently have these; lasting six months until 12 May 2020 and based primarily on 'terrorism'. Though interestingly, both Austria and Denmark also cite 'organised crime' as a justification, whilst Germany doesn't mention terrorism at all but does cite 'secondary movements'. A very significant phrase which Norway and Austria both use as supplementary justifications.
Spain has a very brief fortnight-long imposition of controls in early December coinciding with the climate summit in Madrid. But France, whose non-border with Italy so fired Keith's imagination, has had an almost continual opt-out from the time of the Paris terrorist attacks, now more than four years ago. One timed to remain in force at least till late April 2020. This four-year figure is in direct contradiction of a theoretical two-year maximum for such repeated six-month long extensions. Not only France, but all the countries mentioned above, except Spain, have clearly flouted the two-year limit. Opt-outs from Schengen do not mean that every visitor is screened, nor even a majority. But controls can be and are implemented as the national government concerned sees fit. Usually, but not always, at specific checkpoints along specific borders.
'Secondary movements' is, of course, the elephant in the Schengen room, as it refers to the movement of economic migrants and refugees from southern EU states where they live, with or without legal permission, to the economically more attractive north. Whilst the people of Montpellier may have completely overlooked the phenomenon, though I doubt it, one simple measure of its importance is to observe how it has a cast an enormous shadow over the way historians and the German populace too will view the inheritance of Frau Merkel, who led the EU as Europe and the wider world moved away from the Cold War.
Pope Francis, who never tires of lecturing 'Grandma Europe' over her heartless indifference to the 21st-century Mediterranean boat people, whilst conveniently ignoring the misery visited upon migrant workers in the UAE where his new found Muslim brothers rule the roost with a rod of iron, would probably agree with Keith that the seemingly interminable queues encountered at Edinburgh Airport when two international flights arrive simultaneously is more than enough justification for the current Schengen pact.
Personally, however, I doubt that were the EU to start afresh today discussing border crossings by both EU citizens and EU residents, it would choose to reinvent Schengen as it currently exists.
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