Lost under all the speculation about American shoppers and the failing U.S. economy in the weekend before Christmas is the news that Europe has finally reunited.
You are probably thinking back to a night almost two decades ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, Communism collapsed, and Europe, you thought, had already reunited? November 9, 1989, was most certainly a night to remember — the night the process of European unification began. [For the sticklers among you, it *really* began decades earlier with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950.] It took another step forward in 2004 when 10 countries, eight of them from the “East,” joined the European Union. This process neared further completion Friday when the Schengen zone expanded to include nine of those ten countries (Cyprus the lone holdout).
The photo above shows the German/Polish border at Frankfurt (Oder)/Slubice, the cities where I lived and filled my passport with crossing stamps for over two years. As of Friday, there are no longer guards stationed at that checkpoint, no one keeping you from (stereotypically) filling your shopping cart with low-priced cigarettes and heading West or riding back to the East on someone else’s bike.
If you’re like me with a U.S. passport and penchant for peace and travel, this news is cause for celebration. Once you enter the vast continent of Europe, you can travel around freely almost everywhere, crossing borders without ever needing to show your passport again until you leave. This is doubly good for Europeans who can leave home with nothing more than the equivalent of a driver’s license before flying off to France, Estonia or Hungary for the weekend. But if you’re Russian or Chinese, Indian or Kenyan, you can expect visits to Europe to become that much more difficult. It all comes back to that largely unknown and poorly understood Schengen Agreement.
The European continent is criss-crossed with institutions, agreements and treaties regulating movement and trade. Everyone assumes these treaties are all under the auspices of the European Union, but many in fact are not. A search of the internet turned up a lack of a useful visual to explain the overlap — so I created for you, dear reader, a Venn diagram showing exactly how complicated the situation is.
This image illustrates how faulty assumptions about a unified Europe can be. Someday, maybe 2014, this diagram will look a lot less complicated as “Eastern” states slowly assume the Euro and EFTA and other states join Schengen.
This standardization of border regimes and monetary policy is a boon to Europeans and first world visitors to Europe. Second- and third-world travelers, however, will find that many countries which previously had more “friendly” (or lax) visa regimes towards them are now nearly as off-limits as the countries of “Old Europe.” This is because the lack of internal border controls in Schengen states allows visitors from any point of entry to easily transit to those countries — such as Germany and France — which attract large numbers of illegal immigrants.
Since the vast majority of first-world tourists pose no immigration risk, we travel within the Schengen zone “visa-free” for 90 days. Tourists and businesspeople from countries posing an immigration risk now find Europe slowly shutting them out or making it ever more difficult to enter — an ironic phenomenon often referred to as Fortress Europe.
As an example, consider the case of Russians. Many have friends and relatives within the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania which became full-fledged Schengen members this week. Before the accession, Russians could apply to each country individually and were granted short-term visas relatively easily. Russian citizens, in comparison, are regularly denied visas to “Old Europe” and the United States because of immigration risk. Now that visa standards have increased in the Baltics as well, it will be nearly impossible for many of these previous visitors to gain entry for fear that they will illegally overstay their visas.
So while we rightly celebrate the coming together of Europe and the opening of borders on the continent, we should also remember that other borders are closing more tightly, creating more tension between the world’s gated areas of privilege and those outside looking in. Exclusion in the face of unification, and not the predicted increase in crime or immigration, is the story to watch from this week’s events.