Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Persistent Threat

By David G. Young

Palermo, Italy, November 24, 2015 --  

The face of terrorism has changed in the past generation. The threat to open borders has not.

When the Maltese border guard asked to see my passport, it seemed an ordinary request when boarding an international ferry to Sicily.  In reality, it was anything but.

Because Malta is a member of the European Union's Schengen zone, just like nearby Italy, border controls are supposed to be a thing of the past.  But after major terrorist attacks in Paris just over a week ago, and an upcoming visit by the Queen of England, Maltese officials aren't taking any chances.  Border controls with the rest of the EU have been reinstated until December, and the government is considering keeping them in place even longer.1

In the wake of last week's bombings and shootings in Paris, Malta is not alone in its hand-wringing.  Security has been tightened in cities across Europe.  Even in Palermo, a provincial city that has a relatively small immigrant population and no history of terrorism, the police presence around major public gatherings is notable.  At the grand Massimo Theater, the policeman with a metal detecting wand was none too pleased to find a wire coming from a battery in my sport coat pocket -- until I explained it was just a cell phone charger.

But it is discussions of more border controls that spawns the most controversy in Europe.  Since the refugee crisis started this year, several EU nations have "temporarily" suspended participation in the Schengen agreement, re-instituting border checks within the EU.

Since the Paris attacks, and the revelation that all of the known attackers were EU citizens of Belgium or France2, trust in Schengen and the ability of neighboring EU nations to do border checks is at an all time low.

France has demanded that even EU nationals returning from outside the Schengen zone be given rigorous security checks, to prevent EU citizens returning from joining up with the Islamic State from slipping through.  The Netherlands has gone further, proposing carving out a mini-Schengen zone of rich northwestern European nations to protect themselves from their less trustworthy European neighbors.3 Germany opposes both ideas.

Given these differing opinions, the natural inclination will be to go the Maltese route, simply suspending Schengen with temporary excuses, and extending the suspension further into the future.  If enough countries follow its lead, Europe will devolve back into a region of routine national border checks, just like two decades ago. 

This would be a huge change.  A generation of Europeans has grown up not knowing the pain and inconvenience of queuing for passport checks, or being denied entry due to papers that are out of order. 

28 years ago, when border controls were still in place, France often responded to terrorist threats by requiring visas in advance.   One such act in the Summer of 1987 caused me to be turned away from the border with Switzerland.   The threat back then was from a predominantly Christian terrorist group from Lebanon with a Marxist-Leninist ideology. Which had been accused of a number of bombings in France.4 (For those of you too young to remember, yes, there was a time where Middle Eastern terrorists were not Islamist, and instead predominantly secular or and often Marxist atheists.)

Today, the threats ate different, but the knee-jerk response to tighten border security is always the same.  This is a shame, especially considering how far Europe had come in the last quarter century.  Rather than tear down the real gains Europe has made in regional integration, European leaders would be wise to focus efforts elsewhere.  Perhaps a good start would be to convince their own citizens not to join the Islamic state and return to slaughter their fellow Europeans.

Related Web Columns

Schengen's Deadly Lie, September 1, 2015


The Daily Mail, Major Security Operation and Border Controls Tightened in Malta Amid Terror Fears Ahead of the Queen's Visit, November 21, 2015

The Guardian, EU Ministers Order Tighter Border Checks in Response to Paris Attacks, November 20, 2015

Reuters, Dutch Government Floats ‘Mini-Schengen' Idea to EU Partners, November 19, 2015

Associated Press, Police Identify Tati Store Bombers, September 18, 1986