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As Europe reopens its borders, are its politicians ready to reopen their minds?

Are European politicians ready to reopen minds and expand the Schengen Area?; NurPhoto - Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

ROGER CASALE on the Schengen Area’s 35th birthday and its future amid a backdrop of conflict, racism, and disunity.

After three months of lockdown, Europe is opening its internal borders.

Whether by accident or design, the move coincides with the 35th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement, the moment when France, Germany and the Benelux member states first agreed to create a border free zone on 14 June 1985.

The Schengen area now includes 22 EU member states as well as Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Although some restrictions on travel to and from Spain, Malta, Hungary, Denmark and Norway, for example, will remain in place for some time longer, the rest of the Schengen Zone will see border checks lifted from Monday, 15 June 2020.

It is easy to confuse Schengen with free movement but a moment’s reflection will show that while there is a connection, they are not the same thing. Simply removing border controls does not by itself mean that individuals can move freely between states. It did not mean that in 1985 and it still does not guarantee that today.

In fact the idea of free movement between states was not introduced until the Single European Act of 1987 as one of the famous four freedoms – freedom of movement of capital, goods, services and people. Those who drafted the act meant workers, normally male workers, not the EU citizenship we talk about today. They asked for workers, but what they got, of course, were people.

Important developments in the history of free movement towards the more human rights based approach we have today were often the result of legal challenges in the European Court of Justice. A good example is the right of family reunion. In fact huge progressive gains such as these are exactly the ones the British government is currently trying to reverse by attempting to push through its Immigration Bill (currently before the House of Commons).

Even though free movement has evolved since it was first introduced, the formal right still requires substantial practical resources and/or resourcefulness on the part of the individual before it can take effect.

To exercise the right to free movement, individuals moving from one state to another need to be able to speak the language, understand the culture and find work opportunities, for example.

If free movement is a good thing, then we should be doing much more in Europe to invest in and support it. After peace in Europe, free movement is the EU’s most popular achievement. It is one of the key drivers in the mix when it comes to assessing who feels the most ‘European’.

It all started to take shape 35 years ago in the small Luxembourg town of Schengen.

What can the EU do to make free movement work better?

An obvious place to start would be to admit the member states that are not yet part of Schengen.

There are five of these states at present, Ireland (because of the Common Travel Area with the UK), Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus (which has complex border arrangements due to the fact that the island is split between Greek and Turkish communities).

It seems odd that a member state that can hold the presidency of the EU, as Croatia currently does, should not be allowed open borders with its EU neighbours. Just like Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia is under a legal obligation to join Schengen and just like Bulgaria and Romania it meets all the technical criteria.

Meanwhile Hungary, paradoxically a member of Schengen, still has a high electric fence topped with razor wire on its border with Serbia to keep migrants from making the journey to Western Europe. It is as if Viktor Orban sees his mission as putting back a new or ‘virtual’ Iron Curtain in place of the walls and the fences in Europe that his parents’ generation turned down.

It is not just the physical borders that stand in the way of integration and social cohesion in Europe. Many of the barriers ‘free movers’ face, are to do with language and local customs and regulations. There may also be a perception on the part of some employers that the ‘free movers’ they are thinking of offering work might not be ‘here for good’.

Erasmus has helped with that because not only did it enable students (and some volunteers) to experience life in another EU member state, it also gave them the language, inter-cultural skills and in many case the support networks they needed to make a go of living and working away from their member state of origin after they graduated.

As we reflect on Schengen at 35, is it not high time the EU expanded Erasmus to include many more volunteers, apprentices and other groups of young people who are not involved with higher education? They also need support if they are to live the ‘European dream’ of building a life for themselves and their families in another EU member state.

It is not just the social and economic constraints that prevent people from taking full opportunity of free movement.

We must also ask what about those other non-physical barriers of prejudice, racial hatred, religious intolerance, discrimination.

As Schengen turns 35, what have we learned about the borders in our minds?

At the start of the lockdown, many were dismayed by the reintroduction of physical borders. Such feelings are as nothing compared to the anger and pain that so many are feeling as the measures start to ease, because by chance this has coincided with the murder of George Floyd.

The despicable scenes we all witnessed as the last moments of George Floyd’s life ebbed away on a clear day and in full public view in America, has focussed hearts and minds around the world. There are cases of terrible police brutality in Europe, but the George Floyd case must make us think beyond that. Are not the spontaneous protests in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Norway an invitation to reflect on the fact that racism and discrimination are still a serious problem in Europe, too?

With the re-opening of borders we need an opening of minds.

One way we can do that is by asking questions and starting conversations. Conversations in the workplace as well as with our families, our neighbours and our friends. Questions of ourselves and of the organisations we work or volunteer for as well as of our leaders and those who represent us.

We might ask questions such as these:

‘Do we always treat people fairly when it comes to access to education, housing, and health? Are there barriers in our organisations, that exclude people from black or minority backgrounds from opportunities?’

‘Do we see a fair representation of people from black and minority backgrounds in politics and the media? What more can we do to stand with campaigns against racial violence and discrimination?’

In an open letter, Yasmine Ouirhrane, the young civil rights leader and co-founder of the podcast We Belong challenges us to examine our past, to acknowledge also that slavery did not end with Abraham Lincoln.

‘George’s death reminds us of Stephen Lawrence in the UK, Adama Traoré in France, and so many others. These horrific incidents are indicative of structural racism rooted deeply in slavery and old power structures dictating outcomes for millions today,’ she said.

When we look at Europe today, what do we see?

Too much discrimination, violence and injustice. Too many black and minority people choking to death on the coronavirus, because they have been helping others. Women, children and men drowning in the Mediterranean sea. Too many people, not able to breathe. Just like George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota.

Old Europe’s history of imperialism, colonial rule and its twentieth century experience with fascism continues to cast a long and oppressive shadow into the world of today.

A new civil rights movement is rising in anger across the world. We can take inspiration from talented, young leaders such as Yasmine Ouirhrane, whose voices demand to be heard.

As the physical borders open, let us pledge to challenge the borders in our minds. Let us fill our lungs with the air of freedom. And may the first words we say be: Black Lives Matter!

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