User Menu

Europe’s open-border policy may become latest victim of terrorism

Screening people entering and returning to the EU is a deep concern

A military police soldier patrols the Brussels Midi train station in Brussels. Belgium’s national security level has been raised to three following the terrorist attacks on Paris. Photograph: Dirk Waem/AFP/Getty Images

Almost a week after the deadliest terrorist attack on EU soil since the Madrid bombings in 2004, EU justice ministers have been summoned to Brussels tomorrow for yet another emergency meeting.

The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday have focused attention on Europe’s open border policy.

As France and the rest of the world come to terms with the events that unfolded in the French capital, people are demanding answers.

The ease with which terrorists known to the police moved within the EU’s internal borders – and entered the EU’s external borders into Europe – has alarmed citizens.

As stories emerged over the last few days of how suspect Salah Abdeslam crossed into Belgium from France after the attacks in a car driven by two friends, and was allowed to proceed despite being stopped by police three times has raised questions about security standards in both countries. The news yesterday that chief suspect Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud may have been in Paris after the attacks rather than in Syria as suspected has raised further questions. That this individual – already linked to August’s foiled attack on a high-speed Amsterdam-Paris train, a beheading plot in Verviers in January and the Jewish museum assassinations in June 2014 – reached Paris unnoticed is alarming.

In February, Abaaoud boasted of how he evaded the Belgian authorities after the Verviers raid, telling an Islamic State propagandist magazine “My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them and leave safely.”

Refugees vs terrorists

Apart from one Syrian passport found near the body of one of the Paris attackers – which spawned a reckless linking of refugees and terrorists by some commentators – most of the perpetrators were EU citizens with European passports. Most fundamentally, this opens up serious questions for countries such as France and Belgium about their failure to integrate disaffected Muslim youths into society – Belgian airwaves were filled with programmes this week wondering where Belgium has gone wrong in terms of social integration. But it also raises fundamental questions about how the EU can balance freedom-of-movement rights with the responsibility to protect citizens.

The emphasis of the meeting of EU justice ministers is likely to be on how to strengthen the EU’s external borders rather than any policy decisions on Schengen, the EU’s border-free zone which includes 22 EU and four non-EU countries.

European Commission officials have pointed out Schengen rules already permit member states to reintroduce border checks in emergency situations, including terrorist attacks. Indeed the refugee crisis has already seen a number of countries reintroduce temporary border controls, which the commission says is also within the rules.

The main focus of discussion is likely to be on improving surveillance at the EU’s external borders, both of non-EU nationals (those from “third” countries) and EU citizens re-entering the bloc.

Schengen database

Under existing policy, member states are supposed to check all third country nationals at the EU’s external borders, including checking their identity against the Schengen Information System (SIS), a database which should alert authorities to potential terrorist suspects.

EU citizens and those entitled to free movement can only be checked systematically at the external border if there is considered to be a risk, though the commission has noted the number of EU citizens checked is low. Ensuring that member states exercise their right to check EU as well as non-EU citizens at the external border is likely to be a key recommendation of tomorrow’s meeting.

But the challenges in checking EU passport-holders arriving, for example, at an airport in Poland are different than those facing Greek authorities trying to check thousands arriving at Greek islands, effectively one of the EU’s external borders. The EU has already offered extra staff from Frontex and Europol to help officials in Greece and Italy cope with numbers crossing their borders, including in EU “hotspot” locations. Whether the EU pledges more with the heightened threat remains to be seen.

Despite the commission’s insistence that Schengen is still operating within the rules, and significant public appreciation of free movement, Schengen is undoubtedly being pushed to its very limits. With European Council president Donald Tusk warning last week Schengen was at risk of collapse, there are growing calls for the system to be overhauled. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, a review of Schengen may be the next big policy agenda for the EU.