Saturday 28 July 2012

Schengen: the price of forgetting Europe’s foundation

Henry Norman

Under discussion is the possibility of a return to internal border checks for up to two years. EUObserver.
You can certainly count on the European Union to give one a lesson on sovereignty and the limits of liberal institutionalism. The justice and home affairs council recently announced that it wished to amend the Schengen agreement in order to allow member states greater control of their borders. Add to this a seriously disgruntled European parliament and you know you are in trouble. On learning of the proposed amendments, Martin Schulz, President of the European parliament, argued that the councils actions were, ‘unilateral and counter-productive.’ Therefore, not only does the reestablishment of border-checks threaten to rock the very foundations of the European project, but the way in which the discussions have been played out expose the vulnerability of a parliament currently sensitive to wide-scale disenfranchisement. As a result, two recurrent and profoundly controversial issues collide dangerously within this one debate. 

On the one hand we had what appeared to be the sidelining of an international parliament. Martin Schulz had this in mind when he commented that ‘any reform process must be carried out on the basis of the existing Community institutions and in keeping with the principles of parliamentary democracy.’ Furthermore, the Danish presidency, in moving ahead with such proposals, exhibited a decidedly state-centric agenda.  To many the reintroduction of border controls during a swell of immigration levels represents the disintegration of many of the core principles of the EU; namely the free movement of its people. These are sentiments one would wholeheartedly concur with. The success of the current arrangements can be measured by its wide-ranging and taken fore granted benefits it grants to the citizen. A borderless continent for the European citizen is now taken as a given, not something we ponder whilst we move country to country.  

The existing state of the Schengen Agreement. BBC.
So lets look closely at what exactly the Schengen agreement actually states as this will perhaps clear up some of the arguments made against it. The agreement clearly states that the ‘Schengen area represents a territory where the free movement of people is guaranteed.’  In other words, it does not deal with migration outside of the European Union and to assert otherwise would be a gross conflation of different issues. 

Such conflation stems from the recent Arab spring and the growth in illegal immigration into Italy and other Southern European countries that has resulted. As anger has grown in the Northern member states of France, Germany and Denmark, it is not surprising that populism has so flauntingly influenced policy. Schengen, however, is the wrong policy to tamper with in order to rectify such a situation. Any security threat that may result from illegal immigration post-Arab spring is external and not due to weak policy in the form of Schengen.  I would suggest that work should be done to fortify the Mediterranean borders so that such a situation can be mitigated. This would avoid an image of member states battening down their hatches against other more vulnerable states such as Greece to the pressures of protecting their borders. 

Of course, it would be naïve to ignore the great swathes of illegal immigration that have already occurred during the past year and the effect it will have on the more prosperous European states. However, Cecilia Malmström, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, has commented that such a move "undermines the achievements of the European integration."  The Schengen Agreement already allows for reintroduction of border controls in exceptional circumstances and so if it is national security that is cited as a reason for an evaluation mechanism then surely Schengen is already adept? For example, France was able to restore border controls temporarily after the July 7th bombings in London.  

Therefore, the question that can be raised from this whole affair is what is the point of the EU at all if its branches of governance are so obviously sidelined? I would argue that the reintroduction of border controls comes at a very opportune moment and exhibits the growing fear amongst European leaders that financial armageddon is heading towards Europe. This is a point picked up by Phoenix Capital Research who argue that the real motives behind the evaluation mechanism is to halt ‘people from fleeing with their money when the collapse comes.’ Although rather sensationalized in the article, it helps somewhat answer the question I began this paragraph with. It would send an image of a divided Europe and not one of a union coming together multilaterally to solve some complex issues. It would fracture a union created after a fractured post-Cold War continent. 

In terms of the British position, then in the words of French President Francois Hollande, "they have refused the logic of Schengen for the past 25 years." The UK have wished to maintain their own border controls (however unsuccessfully) although they are party, as is Ireland, to the Schengen Information System which is basically a Europe-wide crime database. 

All in all, talks of Schengen’s revision are not something the UK should take as vindication of their position.  The UK has consistently argued that its stance is based on the increased, unchecked asylum that would result.  However, illegal immigration is not the only reason for Schengen’s reevaluation; the potential default of Greece and others pose a far greater threat. As a result, if there is indeed a fleeing of capital country to country, no border controls, however reinforced, can stop the contagion that will follow. Whilst Europe can and will get over the financial crisis, what message would it send that in some of Europe’s direst days , member states resorted to acting unilaterally and forwent the very principles upon which it was founded. That is a something I fear Europe could never come back from.   

Thursday 5 July 2012

European Scapegoats

Erik Edman

Members of the Greek neo-Nazi party ‘Golden Dawn’ at a rally, an event with faint echoes of the Nuremberg Rallies. Photo: DEMOTIX.
Excuse the history student in me for beginning this article with two short historical references.
Historical reference number one:  on 26 August 1789, the last article of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly of Revolutionary France. Inspired by the overarching ideas of human nature, equality and “natural right” of the Enlightenment, this document held the rights of man to be universal, valid at all times and inherent to human nature itself. This can be argued as being the foundation on which the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of the UN was based on some 150 years later.
Historical reference number two: following the fatigue of the Second World War and growing socio-political changes in the world, European empires disintegrated, giving birth to many smaller nations the world over. The paradox, however, was that great numbers of the people who had only just achieved independence for their countries, decided to immigrate to the homeland of the empires they had broken free from.
With that historical context in mind, let us look into Europe’s recent xenophobic tendencies.
A historical tendency which seems obvious enough is the fact that hardships and xenophobia go hand-in-hand. Europe’s historical past has a special tinge to it which puts it aside from its American cousins and that is the continent’s imperial past. Accepting immigrants from other countries, especially following the decolonisation, was an act of post-imperial magnanimity with immigrants being endured. Europe accepted the waves of immigrants coming in from their former colonial possessions as a show of friendship; an act of atonement with their colonial past. And so the people of the colonies flocked to the imperial homeland which had ruled them for centuries.
But history is not easily forgotten and a feeling of cultural, technological, societal, and –albeit in extreme cases– civilizational superiority survives deep in the subconscious of European societies. And experience tells us that it feeds off hardships. Xenophobia becomes productive; it becomes useful; a fuel that drives the worried, anxious population onwards by giving it hope and a solution. As the reality of the economic crisis settles in European perceptions of everyday life, far-right political groups gain supporters and with them power. And it shouldn’t surprise us: their selling points are excellent.
-Our Country for our Countrymen
-Return to a glorious past (which came to an end because of immigrants)
-Clean our society of foreigners who downgrade it
-Jobs for our countrymen, not foreigners
It might not have a lot of moral substance to it (or any, for that matter) but it sells.
In France, Le Pen’s National Front got 20% of the French vote, in Greece 18 seats have gone to the fascist (nay, Neo-Nazi) party of Golden Dawn. Sweden, a country renowned for its liberal ways, was one of the first to experience this shift in political balance with its far-right party gaining 5.7% of the votes in 2010. Similar trends can be seen throughout Europe from the political to the social theatre (ie. German neo-Nazi murders). And this in a continent where the words Nazi and Germany in the same sentence still manage to send a chill down our collective social spine.
A typical example of endo-European racism can be found in the case of the Roma who have been shunned for centuries. Their children are having difficulties entering schools and parents are struggling to find jobs. Communities of Roma are deported from different European countries and forbidden to work, although their European citizenship ensures them the right to work in any EU country. The Roma, for one reason or another, have developed a collective persona through which they are viewed and which stigmatises them socially, making their lives difficult, regardless of their European citizenship. 
Muslims, especially in the post 9/11 era, have been targeted by European xenophobic sentiments. In France and Switzerland laws which alienate Muslims have been passed, laws which could provoke and aggravate the Muslim population.
One has to wonder if human societies can keep up with the pace technology has set for global integration.
And as the world’s football gaze is turned to the East of the continent, xenophobia did not fail to raise its ugly head as was feared it would. Racist jibes against black players and historical rivalries between Poles and Russians resolved through street fighting. That is not to say that other European states have a much better reputation when it comes to football hooliganism and racism in particular. Black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli has been the victim of racism in his country and Chelsea captain John Terry faces a trial for racism upon his return from the Euro tournament.
The UK suffers of a most peculiar type of xenophobia. Although British society is not openly xenophobic, its government definitely is. There is a political perception prevalent in the UK that all foreign political influence is a breaching of the country’s sovereignty, a dogma most obvious in the UK’s dealing with the European Union and other matters requesting joint action. Britain remained aloof in condemning Ukraine as its European partners did (surely to avoid politicising the Euro tournament only a month before its own Olympic Games as Adam Lenton suggests in his article).
I believe that although this is an issue that needs to be dealt with and European political elites should refrain from using xenophobic rhetoric, we can allow ourselves to take heart at the knowledge of one fact. If extremist and xenophobic parties fail to gather enough support to gain political power now, at this time of European crisis, then it is safe to assume that they never will. Beating them at a time of economic hardship is beating them at their own game. Perhaps Europe has grown-up after all.