After three Americans thwarted a gun- and knife-wielding attacker on a French train Aug. 21, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said that it might be time for security checks at his nation’s borders with its European neighbors.
“It might be time to adjust the Schengen agreement,” he told Belgian public television, referring to an accord between 26 European nations to allow passport-free travel. “The agreement is important, but we now find ourselves confronted with a new threat scenario in Europe.”
It’s the sort of political statement that, when made on the heels of a thwarted attack, can appeal to the public. Experts note, however, that it’s also a notion that cuts at the heart of the idea of a united Europe, with border-free travel being one of the more dearly held, and symbolically important, aspects of the European experiment.
And, they add, when examined more closely, it’s an idea that has very little to do with preventing the attack. The gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani, 25, appears to have collected the weapons with which he launched his attack while in Belgium, meaning border checks would not have factored in to his efforts.
A Moroccan, Khazzani had been granted Spanish residency years ago, meaning that stopping him from entering Belgium would have required more than simply border checks but a revision in the way European residents are allowed to travel.
“The interesting thing about this statement is that it comes from Belgium,” said Adriaan Schout, an expert on European policy at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank. “Even there, where they hold dearly to the idea of a functioning federal Europe, they are asking what really is Europe. Unified Europe is showing its limits.”
There is a question of whether Europe can stop this flood of migrants, and the porous borders of Europe make that difficult.
Iain Begg of the London School of Economics
And it is not showing those limits, experts agree, because of terrorism. The issue of border security has been a hot topic for years on the political right, and it’s especially current this year among a broad audience because of migration. Specifically, more and more Europeans are looking to shut out the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on European shores to plead for sanctuary.
Before Michel’s statements, most mainstream politicians, however, had taken pains not to mingle the issues the way they are mingled in online comments sections. Europe has a problem with young people heading to Syria to fight with the Islamic State and al Qaida and greatly fears their returning. But there is no known connection between those young people, who are legal European residents and often citizens and who go to seek out war, and those flooding into Europe these days, who are hoping to escape conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.
The asylum seeker crisis has attracted broad and loud criticism across Europe. It comes against a horrifying backdrop of cat and mouse between those hoping for asylum and European security forces.
Austrian police on Thursday were having trouble counting the number of dead found in an abandoned refrigerator truck. The bodies had decomposed so badly that officials at first thought there were at least 20 victims. German media on Friday reported the death toll at 71.
Another 200 refugees were found Friday floating dead in the Mediterranean Sea less than a mile off the shore of Libya.
In Germany, a recent Die Welt newspaper poll indicated that almost half of all Germans believe their nation is accepting too many refugees. A poll for Stern magazine indicated that 87 percent of all Germans oppose accepting “economic migrants” or those simply seeking a better life and not fleeing war, and 61 percent indicated that the number of migrants now arriving “will stretch the limits of Germany.”
Across Europe, the debate on migration has shifted to the far right. What before were the statements of fringe groups are now the positions of mainstream political parties.
Angelos Chryssogelos of Chatham House, a British think tank
Opponents haven’t been limiting themselves to answering polls in Germany. A Der Spiegel study noted 15 asylum centers have been firebombed or the subject of arson so far this year. Four or those (and a possible fifth and sixth are now being investigated) were torched in August.
Yet in Germany, as in much of central and southern Europe, native populations are shrinking, and they are actually in need of new blood.
The anger over migration isn’t limited to Germany, of course. The United Kingdom has been up in arms about migrants sneaking in from France on ferries across the English Channel and in trucks and cars using the Chunnel to go under it. A recent YouGov poll there indicated only 15 percent of Brits support admitting “some of the migrants.”
The political far right there is using the crisis as yet another reason for a ‘Brexit,” or British exit, from the European Union. And across Europe the anti-immigrant, nationalist parties of Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere appear to be gaining strength.
Angelos Chryssogelos, an expert on European policy at the British think tank Chatham House, notes that “across Europe, the debate on migration has shifted to the far right. What before were the statements of fringe groups are now the positions of mainstream political parties.”
What does this mean for Europe?
“I don’t know where this all will go for Europe,” Chryssogelos said. “I think that there will be great pressure to stay away from erecting walls within Europe, but when we see the intensity of the argument in even Belgium, it’s obvious the climate has changed. Europe is very nation-centric today.”
And nation-centric runs counter to the thought behind the European Union. Still, European leaders will meet this weekend to discuss possible solutions. Though terrorism isn’t widely being used as the cause for crisis talks, but migration.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka recently told reporters: “The migrant crisis is a pan-European problem. It is a challenge that we cannot run away from.”
Iain Begg, a European policy expert at the London School of Economics, said such thinking is a problem for those who still hold dear the notion of a united Europe, or European Union.
“The freedom of movement is as much of a core part of European integration as a single market,” he said.
Begg noted that France and Belgium have faced terror threats this year that had nothing to do with cross-border attacks. In general, they’ve had to do with insider threats.
“There is a question of whether Europe can stop this flood of migrants, and the porous borders of Europe make that difficult,” he said. “European border security is a bit ropey, which isn’t an attack on those providing it, just a statement that the problem is overwhelming. It’s also a statement on the fact that a collective European approach is a bit wobbly.”
“It’s a symptom of a wider problem. We have to ask, how much, in freedom of movement, in civil liberties, will Europeans have to give up to find a solution?”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews