Monday, 17 February 2014

On Crossing Schengen Borders

Derelict border control point at Bad Schandau

In the strange world of European Union administration, world-altering events take the form of tedious bureaucratic elisions. So it was that the Schengen agreement, almost as an afterthought to a free trade deal, removed all border controls for millions of people. If all the accumulated stuff of Europe was to circulate freely, the functionaries decided with an absurd flourish, people would have to follow. To perpetual amazement, and with more than a hint of wariness, people could suddenly just walk into other countries legally and by the most direct means.

I can remember taking the train from Slovakia to Austria in 2006 (the year before Slovakia entered Schengen; its legal obligation, having joined the EU in 2004). Armed police and sniffer dogs patrolled every carriage, kneeling under seats and checking passports. Two years later I went back to Bratislava (Slovakia's capital) from Vienna, and a friend could carry a bag of weed as freely as he would on the local metro.

On the journey from Posnan, in Poland, to Berlin, you have to change at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. These days the train dodges the old, impervious checkpoints at the border, the crossing of which goes unannounced. You board a more modern train in Germany, and the language of the staff switches. Apart from that there's little noticeable difference. It's all oddly straightforward. Perhaps because I'm from an island, where all countries seem impossibly distant, but this process of switching over - undertaken with the same level of gravity as a change of coat - still amazes me.

From Prague to Dresden, in Germany, the change-over is even smoother. At the Czech-German border station in Bad Schandau, the Czech staff simply hop off and tip their hats to their boarding German counterparts. In turn the Germans nod and clamber up the train stairs. It's a sort of modest Schandau ballet. Announcements are made in German, Czech and English throughout. A pleasant jingle - the same on both sides - blares out before each station. On the approach to Bad Schandau the train runs past the deserted border control point, visible across the expanse of the Elbe/Labe. It is a ghostly thing: overhanging the river bank, it's a reminder of an alternate, long-dead modernity which involved lots of papers, offices, and long car inspections.

Either side of that building there is pleasingly little difference: only the paintwork on the villas that line the river gets a bit glossier on the German side. The people look basically the same. For countries with a history of bitter enmity, there is little today to distinguish them. This is strangely reassuring, as if to suggest that the past can be buried in a new European present of underlying similarity. Then again, similarity is hardly a bar to conflict.

Although it's become incomparably easier for Europeans in the Schengen zone to travel, the authorities still watch over things, and they have their preferences. When my girlfriend first went to Dresden by train the police got on, gave the different compartments the once-over, and ignored everyone except a Vietnamese family, whose passports they then proceeded to check. No one like to be singled out, especially when everyone else goes without questioning. Of all places, the German Military Museum in Dresden contains a stark reminder of what the internal removal of passport controls means for outsiders trying to get in: on display are two ladders cobbled together from thick tree branches, both used by would-be immigrants to scale the fences between Morocco and the Spanish towns of Ceuta and Melilla on the north African coast. These two exclaves, encircled by miles of metal fencing to protect them from local populations, mark the southern borders of the EU. Freedom of movement within the EU has been accompanied by increasingly hysterical concern about who else is coming in from the outside. A reminder, then, that such freedom of movement is only permissible for EU authorities insofar as it is not emulated beyond EU borders. Those who hold up the EU as an example to be emulated throughout the world would do well to bear this contradiction in mind: in a situation of inherent inequality, the benefits that pertain to the privileged few risk being undermined if they are spread too widely.        

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