Fences of Fear
April 25 — May 1, 2016 ▶ ▶ Border-free movementement in Europe hits a roadblock ▶ ▶ “That’s why the trucks rucks go nonstop”
Peering through his rain-lashed windshield, Zoltan Unczorg alternates edgily between the brake and gas pedal of his 18-wheeler truck. “It’s very tiring,” the sturdily built Hungarian says as he crawls along in a line of vehicles approaching the Austria-germany border.
After more than eight hours on the road carrying fan parts from Tapolca, Hungary, Unczorg has no patience for delays. And this day is better than usual. He’s had to deal with waits of about four hours at this checkpoint, set up in September to block migrants from entering Germany on the A3 highway. It’s a route he plies daily for electric-motor maker Ebm-papst. “The worst was last summer, when migrants were walking on the highway heading for Germany,” he says. “It was too dangerous to drive quickly. You could hit them by accident.”
The delays Unczorg must endure stem from the erosion of a system that took 30 years to evolve and has allowed borderless travel across 26 countries. Restoring widespread border controls would be a blow for the most visible achievement in the 60-year quest for a united Europe, conceived in the rubble of World War II: the erasure of national boundaries.
Free movement is a given in what’s called the Schengen Area, named for the Luxembourg town where the 1985 treaty dismantling border controls was signed. Now, Austria, France, Germany, and Sweden have reintroduced some border checkpoints in response to Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the war. About 1 million migrants arrived in Greece and Italy in 2015, and many have moved north. In addition to stemming the flow of people, the checkpoints are meant to deter terrorist attacks and to deflate the growth of anti-immigration movements.
The economic cost of abandoning Schengen would be massive. A permanent return to border controls could cost the European economy €470 billion ($532 billion) in gross domestic product growth over the next 10 years, according to the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank. That’s like losing a company almost the size of BMW every year for a decade.
The open borders power an economy of more than 400 million people. Companies in Germany’s industrial heartland rely on elaborate, just-in-time supply chains that take advantage of lower costs in Hungary and Poland. French supermarkets are supplied with fresh produce that speeds from Portugal and Spain. And transnational commutes have become commonplace because Europeans can choose to, say, live in Belgium and work in France.
For many in the EU, passportfree travel is part of being European.