Monday, January 22, 2007

A brief reflection on some recent travels...

For the Christmas break this year, I drove with my partner from Geneva in Switzerland to Ružomberok in Slovakia. In doing so, we crossed a number of international borders: Switzerland to Austria; Austria to Germany; Germany to Austria; Austria to Hungary (took a wrong turn after Vienna; if you're ever going that way, don't follow the signs to Bratislava on the motorway, they'll take you via Györ, it's a good bit longer); Hungary back to Austria, and Austria to Slovakia. Six borders, and we didn't show our passports once.

This, of course, is one of the most striking advances made by the European Union; and the extent to which it has been consolidated is illustrated by the extent to which those of us from the old EU-15 states at least now take such freedom of movement completely for granted. My experience on the trip to Slovakia did not really strike me as in any way remarkable until an even more recent trip to the US, where the difference could not have been more stark. After some checking to ensure that my passport was machine readable - and I was thus eligible for the visa waiver programme, I still had to have both a digital photograph and two fingerprints taken before I could enter the country.

This is not, however, intended to add to the chorus of voices criticising the US for recent security measures; rather it is to insist that the extraordinary advances made within the EU - so accepted now as to be almost overlooked by those long used to benefitting from them - be accorded their rightful place in any evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of the Union. It has many well-publicised shortcomings; it would be a huge error, however, to allow these to dominate discourse to the exclusion of its incredible achievements. Of course, these benefit, in global terms, only a select few; however, to arrive at this point in a continent so recently divided by two world wars and one cold one, is certainly no mean feat.


Anonymous said...

Sorry you are not comparing travel within the EU with travel within the USA. You were checked before you entered the USA but you were already within the EU. The USA of course is one country, it would seem that the EU would aspire to become the same.

Euan MacDonald said...
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Euan MacDonald said...

A fair point, in many senses, but there are important ways in which the two are simply incomparable. The cultural and linguistic differences across the EU, for example, are simply far more pronounced than they are in the US; and the recent history is certainly far more divided.

The most important point, however, was that what struck me was precisely the point that you dismiss - the ease with which we cross national borders in today's EU. As I said, my point was not to criticise the US, but to warn against complacency and short-term memory loss when evaluating the EU project. The progress that has been made in terms of freedom of movement is remarkable; and it took for me an experience outwith the EU to really bring that home.

A couple of final, quick points: I don't agree that the EU is necessarily aspiring to become a single country - some are, others aren't, it's up for grabs - and that's what keeps things interesting. But that's a-whole-nother fight. Lastly - and not very importantly, but still worth mentioning - my journey began in Switzerland, not in the EU (our passports were, however, checked - perfunctorily - on reentry at the Swiss border).

ken said...

Sorry Blogger Beta got the best of me hence I posted as anonymous by mistake, Ken

The idea of the EU is to dismantle national borders, freedom of movement has not really been a big problem in Europe during my life time, and I did in my earlier life travel extensively throughout Europe and Scandinavia, this was before the EU took hold.

I did not intend to dismiss your point, I do however think that the relaxation of national controls are only one side of the coin, the other is the political integration which is part of the process. It is not possible to relax national border controls without creating a momentum towards and motivation for further political integration in many different far reaching areas of national sovereignty.

This then takes on a different aspect as the relaxation of border controls within the EU requires a stiffening of the EU’s own border control into the EU, it creates an EU area with EU Borders and requires a strengthened centralised EU political entity to oversee the controls of its borders and an EU wide police force or border patrol to police those borders. As internal travel is so easy and based on the EU`s own rules it is not possible to discriminate against any other EU national, it brings in such things as cross national border policing, centralised laws, centralised database of criminals and eventually a centralised legal system. We already have the EU arrest warrant which means that as citizens we are now directly accountable to any other member`s states laws even within our own nation state, this introduces yet further momentum for integration.

The United States is one combined political entity if it is as easy to travel in the EU then it too is arranged to become one political entity.

Your travels you say began in Switzerland, although Switzerland not a full member of the EU it does have several treaties in force with the EU and has since 5 June 2005 ratified the Schengen Agreement.

Euan MacDonald said...

Thanks for your comments, Ken; you raise again some good points. You're right that it is important to remember that with the advances in freedom of movement do not come alone, bringing with them a whole new set of risks and dangers; although I would not present them quite as starkly as you seem to.

The dismantling of internal border controls does indeed create a large degree of momentum towards further integration, particularly in the migration and criminal cooperation matters that you highlight. It does not, however, logically necessarily imply any of these - and it would be reductive indeed to presume that the only possible telos of such integration is the ultimate creation of a United States of Europe.

The EU is, in some important senses, already "one political entity"; in many respects, it is precisely this achievement that I was seeking to applaud, given the fractious history of the continent.

To conclude from this, however, that it thus in all relevant aspects analogous to the US is simply unsustainable; it abstracts from the relevant contexts to such a degree that I wonder if we are actually saying anything interesting or useful in insisting that the EU is, or will of necessity become, "like" the US as a result of its progress on the issue of freedom of movement.

Certainly, then, the freedom of movement rights within the EU are not un-, but only differently-, problematic; the decision as to which problem set to choose is both a political and ethical one. However, to my mind, it would be a reductive misrepresentation of the issues involved to suggest that the issues posed by freedom of movement of necessity include those of a European super-state.

The Swiss point is also an interesting one, as it illustrates the extent to which EU membership has eased the crossing of many borders external to the union - particularly for some of the newer Members. I, for one, am happy to view that as another success for the European intergration project...

ken said...

Obviously the EU will not become like the USA in many respects, I simply point out that the political convergence will if continued create one government of Europe in the same way the USA has one government.

I do not know if the open border policy was intended to create further integration just that it will.