The Future of the European Union: Schengen and Syria

“As we all know from the Roman empire, big empires go down if the borders are not well-protected. So we really have an imperative that it is handled.”

--Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands[i]

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The tragic terror attacks in Paris and Brussels have revealed cracks in the unity of the European Union (EU), raising several questions about the future of Europe. The effects of the attacks have been combined with lingering uncertainty within the EU regarding a potential withdrawal of the United Kingdom, financial instability amongst the member nations, and the Greek financial crisis.[ii] The biggest issue raised by the recent attacks is Europe’s open border policy, which was utilized by terrorists returning from training in Syria to move throughout Europe without much scrutiny by intelligence agencies and to move between France and Belgium in planning and orchestrating their attacks.[iii] 


EU Open Borders

The EU’s open borders were once viewed as one of entity’s great accomplishments and strengths. Open borders were supposed to promote free trade, unity, and the free exchange of ideas.[iv] However, the value of the EU’s open border policy has been called into question after the attacks of Paris and Brussels. Without border controls European countries cannot be who sure who is within their borders, much less identify individuals who may be a terror threat. This weakness in Europe’s security was exposed and utilized by the recent attacks where one of the Paris attackers was able to remain in hiding, plotting another attack and eventually crossing international borders into Belgium to launch the attack at the EU’s capital, Brussels.[v]


The great influx of refugees and migrants from Syria and other regions have also called into question the EU’s open borders and policy toward refugees.[vi] The EU’s initial policy to tackle refugee situations was to require the first nation that a potential refugee entered into to handle the potential asylum claim[vii]. However, this policy is not being utilized in the Syrian refugee crisis as countries like Hungary have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of migrants. Instead, Hungary has tried to prevent migrants from entering the country and allowed them to move further on into Europe[viii]. The problem is that different European countries are differently situated with many of the countries along the border of the EU lacking the capacity to harbor the influx of migrants.[ix] As the refugees migrate through Europe in search of a new home, there is fear that ISIS trained fighters may be migrating with the refugee flow, making it even harder for the disjoined EU intelligence agencies to identify and track potential threats.  Further complicating the issue for the EU is that many Muslims living in Europe have been alienated from European culture, and there is a risk of further alienation due to European anti-Muslim backlash against the large refugee populations and the attacks.[x]



There are several proposed routes that the EU can take, balancing the interests of welcoming and caring for refuges and maintaining European security. One route the EU can take is to have the richer non-border countries contribute money and resources to form a strong outer border around Europe, allowing Europe to coordinate outer security and perhaps create a centralized EU security agency.[xi] European nations could also pay non-EU countries to take and care for refugees, but this would not deter potential terrorists who are looking to enter Europe[xii]. European countries could also eliminate open borders entirely, allowing for some form of checkpoints between EU countries, but this would destroy one of the crown achievements of the EU.

The EU has some tough choices ahead of it if it is going to survive in its intended form. The EU must take affirmative steps to alleviate the refugee crisis and to protect its borders. Open borders were once viewed as one of the great accomplishments of the EU, but now they are viewed as a potential liability. How the EU addresses the problem will say a lot about the future of the EU.


[i] Peter Spiegel, Refugee Influx Threatens Fall of EU, Warns Dutch PM, Financial Times (Nov. 26, 2015),
[ii] EU Referendum, The Week, (April 1, 2016).
[iii] Emmanuel Karagiannis, The Future of Europe After The Brussels Attacks, Al Jazeera, (March 23, 2016); Noah Feldman, EU Without Open Borders Isn’t The EU, Bloomberg View, (November 19, 2015).
[iv] Karagiannis, supra note 3.
[v] Id.
[vi] Feldman, supra note 3.
[vii] Id.
[viii] Id.
[ix] Id.
[x] Mitch Hulse, Europe’s Big Challenge: Alienated Populations + ISIS, Atlantic Council, (March 24, 2016).
[xi] Feldman, supra note 3.
[xii] Id