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Snubbing Schengen over a spike of growing fear of terrible violence?

A Federalist commentary on (border) security governance following the foiled Thalys train attack

, by Nico Segers

The Schengen agreement, following a process which led to 26 nations (including Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein who aren’t EU Members) to suspend travel restrictions and making travel of persons and goods free within the Schengen zone – falls under national attempts to redress in the wake of the Thalys attacks. For real?

authors

  • Nico Segers holds MAs in History and International Relations and Diplomacy. He is alumnus of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and Associate Member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Schengen agreement, following a process which led to 26 nations (including Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein who aren’t EU Members) to suspend travel restrictions and making travel of persons and goods free within the Schengen zone – falls under national attempts to redress in the wake of the Thalys attacks. For real?

We should not hide the fact that the roll-out of Schengen came with a certain negative cost: since 1995 there are scarce limits for dangerous criminals and radicals to cross borders within Europe and move weaponry, finances and other instruments. The menace of weapon flows and radical violence going rampant in Europe is also subject to a degree of mediatization, even though national gun control and imperfect import legislation fall relatively short to detect circulating military-issue weapons (medium and high-caliber machine guns, RPG launchers and explosives) such as the ones used in the January 2015 Paris attacks and other incidents with military-issue weapons in Belgium in recent times.

Still, coordinated crackdowns with aide of Europol and Interpol occur and I would argue we aren’t living the “most dangerous” period ever. Put into perspective the sixties and seventies were at least as violent: a lot of crime gangs, mafia and terror. Think of the Brigate Rosse attacks and bombings in Italy, CCC’s activity in France, and Rote Armee Fraktion (aka Baader-Meinhof group) taking hostages in Germany. The media of the nineties reported dangerous sects who convinced their members to commit mass-suicide in Switzerland. However serious statistical analysis shows that overall rates of violence show a decreasing trend, it’s mediatization and current international security challenges (Daesh in Syria and Iraq, a Russia-in-denial over its military presence in Ukraine) that buttress a common belief that public violence is exceedingly worsening.

Now, who remembers those waiting lines and ordeals when travelling from their home country to popular holiday destinations in Europe? To cross the several borders and need for patience under a flurry of scrutinizing policemen and customs officers, who left little to taunt passengers with questions and document inspections. Some may have experienced uncanny holiday setbacks like confiscations or fines for overstepping the import limit of cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol or – God forbid – even possessing outlawed pornography.

My Swiss experience with border scrutiny

Perhaps alien to the general experience of most federalists born in the eighties and nineties, border checks were quite commonplace in a not-so-distant past. Some frequent traveling federalists, might have been confronted with some less pleasant scrutiny or hardy inspections when flying or crossing border checkpoints further abroad. No need to go far… think of all non-Schengen countries in Europe (and for a ‘particular’ feel I recommend making once a full itinerary starting from the outside airport perimeter to your gate in the Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport during a period of heightened community unrest).

I experienced how far customs authorities and border guards can go earlier this year at a highway border crossing between Switzerland and France. Grateful it only lasted some fifteen minutes, but I started to feel discomfort and incrimination creep through my opened windows. The enquiry I was submitted was mostly aimed at (a) verifying my purpose / argument to enter the country within legitimate duration, and (b) detecting compliance to customs duties laws (contraband, pricy items…).

First question: “Is this your own car you’re driving, Sir?” Indeed it is. Next ones: “What is the purpose of your travel to and presence in Switzerland?”, “Do you have an accommodation or fixed address in Geneva? Can you tell me where exactly?”, “Can you show me proof of reservations made for temporary accommodation?”, “Are you transporting someone else’s belongings right now?”, “Can you show a receipt of the valuables purchased in your car?”, “Are you working or volunteering for the international institutions based in Geneva? – If not, then what is your job and where do you work?”

However, I didn’t approve of the last one particularly which probed at my civil status: “Are you married or in a registered partnership with a Swiss national?” “No.” “Oh, ok.” Possibly a future new question will be included in the verbal cross-examination: “Will you be visiting a place of worship at your destination or contact members of said (your) religious organisation?” In a dystopian future, answering yes to this question may prompt your name on a security watch list... Orwellian enough? I’m sure the advocates of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will be on their toes to warn for a violation of the right of ‘free assembly’ enshrined in both (even though the European Convention on Human Rights does not preclude lawful restrictions in the interest of national security or public safety as prescribed in national laws (Article 11.2 ECHR).

Difficult to say where the line of scrutiny is to be drawn, but it’s debatable if questions regarding employment and civil status need be answered at all when I am crossing borders as a Schengen citizen – this does enter the sphere of private life, doesn’t’ it?

But back to the Schengen question! Is there need to worry?

The European Commission officially stated in the wake of the Thalys aborted attack that the Schengen Treaty would not be altered, as inviolable acquis communautaire.

As nine Ministers convened in Paris on 29th August to initiate talks about stepping up more stringent identity and luggage checks, the Belgian Minister for Security and the Interior Jambon echoed the Commission’s principle that the 1995 Schengen Agreement would not be partially suspended, re-negotiated, or ‘rolled back’ (like the Danish government did in 2011, under mounting pressure of right-wing parties). However, his French counterpart Minister Cazeneuve still made a somewhat non-sensical statement that he would invite the European Commission to “examine a targeted amendment to the Schengen frontier code allowing controls where necessary and when necessary.” Was his request a masked-up show of allegiance to constituency or backwater sentiment? It would be surprising if the Juncker team would actually give in to this side-negotation attempt. So Schengen retains its “legal vigor” - which is a federalist sanctuary preserved as should. Belgian Minister Jambon alluded to the creation of a specific task force to enhance firearm traceability within the EU. Intrusive frisk-searching of passengers has not been on the table (sofar), but political go-ahead was given to stepping up external frontier verifications at the operational level.

A senior analyst at the IDEI research institute in Toulouse warned that “retrofitting national and international railway […] to meet airport-style criteria would be astronomically costly” and “strictly impossible in the near future”. Understanding the nasty reputation that Belgium is a premier country for illegal arms trade and transit, this is an action point that does require a new European standard (however, the ‘balloon effect’ and more ingenious ways of hiding arms will ensue too).

A comprehensive, realistic travel security picture for the future

Passengers will grow accustomed to systematic ID and automated luggage scans at check-in locations along major European travel railway stations and sea lane boarding ramps. That’s the “front office” of security measures. Yet behind the scenes of the European political response about this issue, relates to courses of action for the “back office”: improved intelligence cooperation.

A “Schengen Information System III” to target and identify suspects flagged as wanted, on parole, or known for dangerous crimes making their way through Schengen. Question is: should the search included automated cross-checking of EURODAC? That is the fingerprint system to detect multiple asylum applications and unauthorized entry, is as of 20th July also available to Europol, national police and public prosecutors under regulated disclosure protocols. There should be a clear separation of the purpose of Dublin II (a instrument being EURODAC) and the data exchange aims to contribute to the aims of the European Security Strategy (primary instruments being).

I would endorse EU member states to abandon national reservations and step up sharing of intelligence on (fugitive) criminals and medium-risk (persons under surveillance, non-convicted) and high-risk suspects (under surveillance with past conviction records) through a ‘European Travel Security Unit’ under Europol. Europol is already working with trusted crime, suspect and item data pools and their backbone systems (to note: the essential Europol Information System, the SIENAsecure exchange platform, and an intelligence-led operational Analysis System). The proposed Unit can be expanded on existing records and pegged onto a common intra-Schengen zone travel security policy.

The EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN) can provide further support and be tied-into the functional database of a future European Travel Security unit, for instance to highlight alerts in more busier periods and to aggregate and disseminate intelligence about risk trends, such as locations or infrastructure that may require heightened patrolling or inspection.

Such are the necessary measures for comprehensive European security. As for most ordinary and law-abiding travelers, the advice soon goes to not pack in personal luggage any firearms, knives (also Swiss army knives!), tasers, brass knuckles, crowbars, mace or pepper spray cans, laser pointers or any kind of illegal substances, as security staff may seize them (and even you) prior to departure to your favorite European destination(s). Give your fellow passengers a (security) break!

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