Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Paris: Schengen and the Quitters

Following the jihadist attacks in Paris (13 November 2015) some have concluded that:

  1. We (in the UK) should quit the EU in order to “secure our borders”
  2. That the Schengen Agreement is fatally damaged

Both these conclusions seem to ignore certain realities.

In the UK we are correct to be concerned about events in France, 22 miles across the Channel from Dover. We may also be concerned that it appears that terrorists have moved “around Europe” with relative freedom.

But we have a sea border with (most of¹) the EU which gives us control points:

  • Sea Ports for Ferries
  • Airports for Aircraft
  • The Calais Channel Tunnel Terminal for Road Vehicles
  • Eurostar Terminals and “on board” checks for Rail Travellers

This leaves a small number of “independent travellers” using private craft to enter the UK either through small ports or possibly direct onto isolated beaches. The crossing does not however currently seem to be subject to the sort of illegal attempts at migration (traffickers abandoning people in rubber boats in sea lanes) that we have seen across the Mediterranean.

The level of control that we have at these ports is largely dependent on the competency and resources of our border agencies.

Importantly leaving the EU will not substantially change these arrangements, nor will it physically drag us further away from the continent however much some sceptics may wish – or even believe – that to be the case.

It may, however, lead to France saying that they see no reason to allow a non-EU country to have a border on its territory at Calais and asking us to withdraw our border controls from Calais to the Folkstone Terminal. Then when migrants jump border fences they are disappearing into the United Kingdom not merely entering the Channel Tunnel Area (where they are relatively easily rounded up and returned to “France” – albeit to be released to have another go!).

Leaving the EU will probably (subject to exact negotiations) allow us to refuse entry to EU citizens by imposing visa controls and black-listing.

However black-listing already works (again dependent on the competency and resources of existing controls); leaving the EU will not necessarily improve the blacklisting. It may get worse because of the likely deterioration of relationships as we become a non-member country not receiving the same cooperation as fellow members of the EU club.

Imposing visa controls will be a pain (it will in all likelihood apply in both directions) and will inhibit both business and tourism – but it will prevent Eastern Europeans from entering the country and doing all those jobs that the British do not seem to want to do. It will also mean more cost as visas (to be effective) have to be administered. (It is also unclear how many in London will get their plumbing and building work done.)


Although many Euro-septics would delight at the collapse of the Schengen Agreement – portraying the collapse as “another failure of the greater union project” – that delight ignores realities.

We are fortunate that Britain only has easily policed sea borders. In that respect our borders are relatively non-porous. The UK of course has a single land border (¹) with the Republic of Ireland. We have experience of the porosity of this border and the difficulties in sealing it.

Attempts to seal a land border without building a fortified patrolled fence (iron curtain style) are doomed to failure. The law abiding get delayed at border points, whilst the non-law-abiding slip through at unofficial crossings.

Within Europe borders have been porous for years (well before Schengen). I can remember crossing on a coach from France to Switzerland without even noticing in the 1980s. That is the reality of most land borders; you either fortify them or you accept that they are open.

Schengen effectively recognised this reality and sought to regulate it – eliminating queues and delays at border points for commerce and tourists alike. The “bad folks” (© George W Bush) may even start to use the main crossings rather than the inconvenient back lanes – and consequently become more visible due to the use of ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Readers)!

That the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have opt outs from the Schengen Agreement is a sensible recognition that the borders between those countries and the rest of the Schengen Area are policeable and already subject to delays due to security concerns (you want to know who is getting onto aircraft or ferries and particularly in the case of aircraft you want to know what is in passengers’ luggage).

Events such as those in Paris may at times cause temporary checks to be put in place on borders (as allowed in the Schengen Agreement), but these do not represent “re-imposition of border controls” they are more of the nature of a police cordon around an area with police checks not for “illegal immigrants” but for suspects.

Schengen is under strain because of the inadequacies of the external border controls and the lack of agreement within the Schengen Area countries on admission of migrants. The events in Paris are just being used as a false reason to abandon the agreement by those really concerned about migrants.

The UK’s concern about migrants also has little to do with Schengen. It has more to do with arrangements for policing the already permitted border particularly at the Ferry and Channel Tunnel terminals around Calais. That illegal immigrants can be caught by the UK border authorities (or even by the French Police) but then released by the French to in effect try again, is farcical. But that is not because of Schengen! It is primarily because stowing away on a lorry (often involving breaking and entering) is not an imprisonable offence and because the stow-aways have taken care to lose all evidence of their nationality so that they cannot be returned to their country of origin.

The events in Paris were terrible but they should not be used as an unthinking excuse to undo progress.

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