RealClearWorld Newsletters: Europe Memo

A Quiet Border in the Benelux

A Quiet Border in the Benelux
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The Dutch border near Roosendaal is the perfect illustration of the so-called flat world described in rosier years by observers of 21st Century globalization. There are slight changes to observe as you cross by train from the Netherlands on one side, to the culturally contingent Belgian region of Flanders on the other -- the landscape is managed ever so slightly different, and the design and materials of train stations along the way are altered as you ride the rails away from Amsterdam and closer to the Belgian capital, Brussels. But there is no more awareness of a change in jurisdiction than drivers would experience in crossing the highway from Texas into Oklahoma and noticing the slight change in the grading of the roads under their tires.

The flatness is physical as well. From one hub to the other in the Benelux nations (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) and Germany -- Frankfurt, Utrecht, Antwerp, and away -- the idea of a real border, one where passports are checked and luggage inspected, seems absurd. This, the economic heartland of Europe, is a rare space on the Continent, bereft of physical obstruction, traversed by rivers deep and navigable, and now crisscrossed by the most developed and interconnected of rail networks. A fully operational border reinstated there, say as an artifact of a broader breakdown in the Schengen system of open European borders, would show the blatant futility of small-scale national sovereignty reasserted in an age where going bigger is the only way to answer the questions posed by geopolitics.

Why bring up a train crossing in the middle of the Benelux here in the Europe Memo? Because in the midst of all the doom-and-gloom headlines dominating Continental discourse -- and readers of this memo will be plenty familiar with the geographical and political completeness of their scope -- one of the stories running on a side track to the broader unease is a proposal for a mini-Schengen that would bind together just those core Northern European nations, and leave out the rest. First reported in Dutch daily De Volkskrant, the proposal for a radically altered Schengen appeared in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. And France, the only possible counterweight to German power in the European institutions, is not even included in the putative arrangement. (Germany says it is not that interested.) Hans Von Der Burchard reported on the matter in mid-November for Politico EU:

"Bert Koenders, the Dutch foreign minister, told the newspaper there were ‘very exploratory talks,' although he did not use the phrase ‘mini-Schengen.'

"At a news conference in Berlin Thursday, Thomas de Maizière, Germany's interior minister, said the Dutch had raised the idea on several occasions, but Germany was not too enthusiastic. ‘Our political goal must be that the Schengen area as a whole functions,' he said. ‘Everything else would just be supplementary considerations.'

"Civil servants from the above ‘like-minded member states' are meeting in Brussels for talks, an EU diplomat involved in the discussions told POLITICO Thursday. ‘We discuss Schengen and how the current extra burden through the refugee crisis can be relieved. This had already started before the Paris attacks. The group also discusses how the [EU's] external borders can be better protected,' the diplomat said."

EU Observer's Peter Teffer further reported this week that the Netherlands has no specific plan for such an arrangement, but that the concept is being floated, possibly as a threat to Eastern European nations seen as uncooperative regarding refugees.

This gives us a measure of how far generalized crisis has crept into Europe's geographical and intellectual core. Earlier this year, London School of Economics academic Piers Ludlow told me "anyone who believes that the answer to the current situation is a return to a small Europe, centred on just France and Germany, is barking up the wrong tree." Ludlow's comments came at a time when European leaders were speaking helplessly of the numerous crises of confidence that existed at their edges. The basic tenor was this: Greece needed to right its financial ship; the British needed to make a decision on their own about whether to remain EU members; Russia needed to come to terms with its history and its current reality, and move to the table to negotiate on Ukraine. The European Union was young and not in any case equipped to make big decisions for these nation-states.

Now on Dec. 1, we have reports from major media outlets of fallback plans to unite Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in a much-diminished open-borders area, to the exclusion even of France, one of the European Union's two indispensable members. Quoting from EU Observer:

"[Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem] said ‘mini-Schengen' could be a fall-back plan if no solution is reached for "sharing the enormous burden of the influx of asylum seekers.'

"‘We'll try to find solutions with 28 (EU member) countries. But if we fail - and it is difficult - then the Netherlands may have to take measures together with countries in a similar position,' said Dijsselbloem, who is also the head of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers.

"He said mini-Schengen is ‘a concept to think about in case those 28 countries do not reach a solution.'"

As I wrote in the week preceding the Paris attacks, a confused Europe is looking for radical comfort -- and here is a dose of Dutch comfort. The world around us may not in fact be flat. But here, it will remain so.

Around the Continent

Erdogan's supplicants: On Sunday, the European Union formalized a deal for Turkish assistance in the refugee crisis. In the lead-up to the deal, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to hold all the leverage, and that impression holds true in its aftermath. The Wall Street Journal:

"In theory the agreement could help control the growing refugee problem, assuming Mr. Erdogan sticks to it. Turkish authorities have looked the other way as hundreds of thousands of people have slipped across its eastern borders and turned its western coast into a staging ground for dangerous journeys to Greece and beyond. Ankara now promises to step up its border policing to obstruct the flow.

...

"But the EU has paid a high price for this cooperation. Already the two sides are haggling over whether the €3 billion is a one-time payment or, as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has suggested, an ongoing maintenance program. The EU will begin taking steps to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens and hold regular summits with Turkish leaders. Brussels is also offering to renew talks on Turkey's accession to the EU."

The Economist doesn't believe the deal will do much to stanch the flow of migrants to European borders. Part of the reason, they believe, is the ineffectiveness of the European Union's own policies on migrants:

"Without effective external border control, he added, the Schengen visa-free zone ‘will become history'. Refugee advocates warn that putting too much pressure on Turkey to prevent refugees from moving westward could have nasty consequences, increasing the risk of ‘push-backs' and police brutality. There are already reports that Turkey has begun refusing entry to Syrians fleeing the war, a violation of the Convention on Refugees."

The British game in Syria: The disarray in Britain's Labour Party has created space for Prime Minister David Cameron to take a foreign policy gamble. The Irish Times:

"David Cameron's insistence on a supermajority in the Commons for UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria reflects not a few canny political calculations.

"Ostensibly about vesting in the decision to go to war added political legitimacy by making it a decision of the nation, and not the governing party, the British prime minister also adds a lustre of statesmanship to his own role by taking the ‘difficult', honourable way.

"But Cameron, now likely to put the issue to the vote tomorrow, is weighing other unstated and not so noble considerations. Firstly, he is acutely aware of the deeply tarnished reputation of Tony Blair, the last PM to take the UK into war, and has an interest in protecting his own future standing by implicating as many as possible across the House in the decision this time."

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