Opinion Society

Schengen Area, Europe: Freedom is an Open Road

Mstyslav Chernov, Wikimedia Commons; Bobby Hidy, flickr
Written by Vera Wilde

One of Jean’s first memories is of her parents’ daily border crossings between France, where their family lived, and Switzerland, where they worked. As small children often do, she worried her parents might disappear forever in that foreign country that is “out of sight, out of mind.” So as European norms about freedom of movement in the Schengen Area strengthened — with over two dozen European countries abolishing border controls, enabling passport-free movement within large parts of Europe — Jean [a pseudonym] felt safer.

As Germany prepares to close its Eastern borders for the first time in decades in response to the refugee crisis, the Schengen’s Continental open road is itself at a crossroads. How it continues adapting to changing circumstances will shape its character for the rest of the century — and potentially whether the Schengen Area persists or, like so many borderland experiments in freedom from centralized state control, is subsumed by the growth of more localized, bureaucratic control apparatus.

Germany’s reinstated border controls with Austria follow the physical path of migrants fleeing violence in the Middle East — and the legal path Germany began in a 2013 ruling following Denmark’s example in weakening the internal legal regime of the original Schengen Agreement. Locals will tell you that original regime — like the U.S. criminal justice system — was in practice always one reality for white Europeans and another for dark migrants. Europe has long been a world of relative freedom for the former and discretionary ticket checks for the latter. But despite its ever-present limitations and coming changes, the Schengen embodies a freedom of movement we can scarcely imagine across the pond.

People move here. They walk, cycle, sail. They have working, cheap, and (mostly) clean public transportation — transportation most people use regardless of class. Probably because class is something Europeans talk about in politics — while continuing McCarthyism keeps income inequality and corporatist military-industrial state capture largely out of the mainstream American political discourse. That corruption keeps us feeling unsafe, in part because it really keeps us unsafe — by preventing essential national security and public health reforms such as national public transportation and gun control. It’s also depressing. And feeling unsafe or depressed makes you less likely to show up and play — physically and politically.

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The flip side: Talking about class has enabled European political groups to successfully challenge special interests in order to overcome collective action problems, attaining big goodies like public transportation and gun control. The U.S. can learn from the Schengen example. In the meantime, I can go for long walks alone, watching children bike around town without helmets, no longer surprised or fearing for them. It feels safe here.

That’s probably just a happy side effect—of the relative peace and prosperity that is in part a legacy of European imperial adventures America seems to be repeating. The Schengen Area has a population of over 400 million and aggregate GDP of $16.7 trillion in 2014, compared that to the U.S.’s 321 million people and $17.4 trillion GDP in 2014. In geopolitical terms, Schengen was Europe’s credible attempt to solve European collective action problems like refugee crises and countering U.S. hegemony in areas like the information technology and information security dominance. It was worth a try: IT dependence costs Germany alone 60-70 billion euros annually through corporate espionage via predominantly American software. Through open borders and open communication, Schengen helped Europe advance its interests where nationalism failed. This is one of the reasons it’s in European geostrategic interests to support WikiLeaks and other independent media organizations that use the truth to effectively contest the secrecy that protects abuses of power.

It’s ironic that both the Schengen agreement and the American hegemony it countered seem to be weakening at the same time. Except that it’s the global refugee crisis resulting from the same U.S. foreign policy blunders that threaten them both. The global order may be changing as a result. Or maybe America undercut Europe’s attempt to counter its hegemony with the illegal Iraq War and its long-term, region-destabilizing consequences — and the empire will be left standing while the Schengen falls.

Time will tell. To paraphrase the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, change ain’t nothing new. It’s still premature to decry the end of the Schengen, or American political hegemony. Compared to other norms around freedom of movement — say, in the “show me your papers” state of Arizona, or at the growing U.S.-Mexico and India-Bangladesh border fences — European border checks are quaint. At the ordinary level of individual men, women, and children walking and biking in peace, the Schengen still leads the world in everyday civilization.

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That community spirit of peace and trust has concrete security consequences. For example, it helps European law enforcement share information in the Schengen Information System (SIS), solving interoperability problems that still plague local, state, and federal U.S. law enforcement. The same community trust is associated, too, with less crime according to evidence-based procedural justice research.

It’s also associated with a different sense of freedom. Freedom in America is a set of rights you bear like arms and other heavy loads. Freedom in the Schengen is a process you experience like a blooming-into, a flexible condition for fluid human thriving. That thriving is both personal and political. I hope it continues, for children like Jean and refugees like me.

The future is always uncertain. It’s one reason among many to be grateful for what we have right now. I’m grateful for this culture of joyful, ordinary movement, of walking to the corner grocer for dinner instead of hoarding food, of police agencies sharing data and wealthier citizens sharing more of their wealth through progressive taxation so that everyone can be safer. Freedom in today’s Schengen is an open road.

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About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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Schengen Area, Europe: Freedom is an Open Road

by Vera Wilde
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