Without borders

March 30, 2020

Tobias Herrmann is a millennial, and in his lifetime has never experienced borders within the European Union. Now, 25 years after the Schengen Agreement came into force, the corona pandemic and the refugee crisis are causing European states to close their borders. Cause for a personal reflection on the freedom of travel that is such a precious commodity, and on what the “United States of Europe” means.

Selfie in Budapest: for our author Tobias Herrmann, freedom of travel has always been the norm - until now.

As a part of the generation born in the 1990s, freedom of travel within Europe was and still is something I take completely for granted. And as is so often the case in life, you don’t really consider the things that you take for granted to be particularly important, but simply accept them for what they are. After all, you don’t know anything different. You only really start to appreciate these privileges when they are taken away.

Currently, millennials such as myself are finding out what restricted travel really means. Many European countries are closing their borders, limiting border traffic and withdrawing into total isolation. The reason is COVID-19 and the rapidly spreading corona pandemic. We are being told that the most effective way of preventing or at least slowing down the spread of the virus is to close off all contact.

However, in June last year, I already had an experience that gave me an insight in how much more difficult it must have been to visit other countries before the Schengen Agreement came into effect, and which served as a reminder how precious freedom of travel really is.

Over the Corpus Christi holiday weekend, I wanted to travel to Montenegro for a few days with two friends. For environmental reasons, we decided to book a coach to Sarajevo in Bosnia instead of flying. There, the plan was to rent a car and travel on to Montenegro.

While my two friends were able to go through with our plan, for me, the journey ended earlier than expected. At the border between Croatia and Bosnia, I was shocked to discover that my identity card had expired a few weeks previously. That wouldn’t have been a problem within the EU, since you’re allowed to continue using your ID card even up to six months after expiry. However, Bosnia is unfortunately not part of the EU. And since I didn’t have my passport with me – why should I, since we’re all part of Europe – I was refused entry.

Even though of course, the EU is not the same as the Schengen area – Switzerland for example is not a part of the EU, while the opposite is true for the UK and Ireland – the principle is still the same. As soon as a country is not a member of the confederation of states in question, difficulties arise. Trade or travel agreements such as the Schengen Agreement are therefore worth their weight in gold in many ways, particularly for such a comparatively small continent that despite its size is made up of nearly 50 independent states.

Some people therefore compare multi-state Europe with the 50 federal states of the USA – and in certain respects, I am inclined to agree with them. When it comes to diversity of culture, landscape or cuisine, comparisons can certainly be made between the USA and Europe. Or is a Texan really less "foreign" to a New Yorker than someone from France is to someone from Finland? Is there less difference between Death Valley and the Rocky Mountains than between the Adriatic Sea and Lapland?

I admit that I find the vision of the “United States of Europe”, which has existed for nearly 100 years, and which was most recently evoked in 2017 by Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate for the chancellorship, not very realistic, even though it would bring several benefits. The introduction of the euro across the whole of Europe could ensure financial stability, and a common European military would give the continent more international clout and make it less dependent on the USA. However, in order for a United Europe to succeed, the individual countries would have to give up some of their decision-making powers and autonomy. In my view, that’s unlikely to happen. Or does anyone really believe that Germany and France would be willing to forego their position as “top of the class” in Europe?

Also, all states would have to agree on a common form of government. When you look at the incredible range of different political systems in Europe, you can’t deny the utopian nature of this idea. Finally, unlike in the USA, we citizens of Europe speak different languages. A solution would have to be found for this problem (the invention of a “European” language?), which I don’t see happening. This is where the parallels with the USA end. However, when it comes to freedom of travel within the 50 federal states, the United States could serve as a model for Europe.

At this time, we could be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the dismantling of border controls following the Schengen Agreement . What an irony, therefore, that the basic concept of Schengen is being taken to absurd levels at present. On the one hand, freedom of travel is being hugely restricted due to the coronavirus, as mentioned above. On the other, however, in recent years, potential barriers to travel within Europe have not been dismantled, but rather increased. In 2015, for example, many countries closed their borders during the refugee crisis, while regions such as Catalonia are striving to attain autonomy. And of course, we shouldn’t forget Brexit. Precisely with a view to this worrying trend away from a common Europe and towards more nationalism, protectionism and small-state attitudes, an expansion of the Schengen area to cover the whole of Europe would be a strong statement.

Personally, in my opinion I reacted entirely appropriately to being refused entry at the border between Croatia and Bosnia - I travelled to Zagreb, spent a day in Budapest, took a night train to Bratislava and spent a day wandering around Maribor. Overall, I visited four countries in four days, met some very nice people, gained a glimpse of interesting, other cultures and sampled the local cuisine. Here’s to freedom of travel!

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