Bursting the Bubble

Schengen in the Wake of Germanwings Tragedy: Reconciling Freedom and Security

7 April 2015 | by

Security and liberty are not easy bedfellows.

In 1667, the French government created the first modern police force. It was created with the mission of providing safety – and representing the government – in Paris, Europe’s largest city at the time. In 1797, the British government considered creating a similar force, to limit theft and unlawfulness affecting London’s booming docklands. In the British context, the creation of the police met with public hostility, some even perceived as a “foreign import” and an assault on citizen’s freedoms (oh, how some things never change…).

Indeed, I have always erred on the side of security. Beyond political rhetoric and differing approaches, we all want to know our friends and family enjoy the maximum safety possible. When I discuss security with friends from eastern Germany and other post-Soviet countries, you can feel different histories playing out. Without surveillance, the IRA and other militants would have claimed innocent lives. The opposite is the case for victims of the Securitate in 1980’s Bucharest.

It will come as little surprise to some readers that my views sharpen a little, when public discourse turns to the Schengen Area. The Four Freedoms which lay the fundamental foundations of European integration guarantee the free movement of people. But, without a passport free travel area, the value of this hard-won freedom is reduced. As much as boarder checks between England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland would be rejected out of hand a contrary to the basic value of the Union, or between Flanders and Wallonia, so to should European citizens en masse think carefully about surrendering our rights under the Schengen Agreement.

Within a short amount of time, two tragedies have placed political pressure on the passport-free regime covering most EU-Member States, as well as the EEA. The Charlie Hebdo massacre instigated political discussions at the highest level, on how such a tragedy could be prevented. The recent Germanwings crash recently led to similar assertions. In the influential tabloid BILD Newspaper, German Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière (CDU/EPP) stated “Ein Flug ist nämlich nicht vergleichbar mit einer Zug- oder Busfahrt, bei denen die Tickets anonym ausgestellt werden. Meines Erachtens müssen wir aus Sicherheitsgründen wissen, wer tatsächlich an Bord eines Flugzeugs ist”.

Now, I understand that the Minister is in many respects correct. If Schengen provisions on road, train and bus travel are respected, extra security precautions in the field of air-travel seem most reasonable.

However, the Minister’s discourse betrays a different agenda. De Maizière notes that “nach dem Anschlag haben wir bei allen Passagieren und der Crew überprüft, ob sie uns als Gefährder bekannt sind”, in other words, he asks for a review of all passengers, to see who among those passengers might be a likely troublemaker. This raises fundamental questions about what sort of society we wish to have. Is someone, say, with Syrian nationality suspect because of troubles in his or her home country? Will people’s passports be voided or flagged in airports on the mere suspicion of wrong-doing?

Indeed, in the context of a terror attack, I concede that the questions asked above become much harder to answer. But these comments come in the light of a “non-terrorist” tragedy. The deaths of those passengers came as a result of the decision of a tortured young man, in a context we may never fully understand. This may – in fact, it should – start debates. How to we offer support to people who are suffering from depression and other psychological and mental illness? What provisions can we make to ensure the maximum safety for the traveling public? But none of these questions are answered by curtailing Schengen.

Schengen is a fundamental part of the freedoms we have won as European citizens. Although no policy can be above evaluation, we should tread carefully when considering rescinding liberites it took us half a century to win.

What do you think?