Has the freedom of movement in Europe been revoked recently?

Nov 17, 2015 · 7 min read

I am a citizen of a country that has been a member of the project for a united Europe since 1952. I was born in 1983, and I have been a supporter of the EU ever since I learned what EU meant.

I have been travelling across Europe for years. I have been to Austria, Germany, and France before and after 2000. I have lived in Spain in 2008–09, and returned there in 2010. I have visited Belgium and the United Kingdom in 2011. In 2012, I moved to the UK for my PhD, and during this time I frequently travelled between the UK and Germany, Ireland, and Italy, either by plane or by car.

Modern Europe is a young country, born in the aftermath of World War II, and things are still a little fluid in many respects. For example, not all the current members have joined at the same time, and new members are expected to join in the coming years. One thing that always struck me as odd is the opt-out mechanism, by which a member State can decide to not adopt certain parts of EU policies. Possibly the best known case is the decision of some countries to not adopt the Euro. That is generally fine — except for when a wire payment between British Pounds and Euros costs you a good 10–15 pounds, plus inflated exchange fees, but I digress.

The UK and the Republic of Ireland opted out of the Schengen Agreement, particularly to what pertains to the freedom of crossing borders outside of fixed checkpoints, and without having to acquire visas. In my opinion, this freedom is the best thing about the EU: we get to travel, work, and make friends across many different and amazing countries. In practice, this means that a EU citizen can walk across the German-French border, spend some time in France, take a car to Spain and seek a job there, fly to Austria, cycle down the Alps into Italy, take a ferry to Greece, fly back to Germany, spend the night in Belgium, and so on, without needing passports or visas. In reality, sometimes police may want to check your identity for security purposes. This often happens at airports, and it is perfectly fine and sensible. The EU says that most State issued forms of identification are legally valid for travel across Europe. These include passports, national ID cards, and sometimes driving licenses. Despite the UK and Ireland having opted out of this, they still allow EU citizens to cross their borders with any valid form of identification, and without requiring a visa. This makes the whole matter extremely confusing.

In 2012, I moved to the UK, driving my car, hopping on a ferry to cross the Channel. A police officer briefly inspected my tightly packed cargo, and gave me the green light after checking my national ID card. A couple of months later, I flew back to my home country to visit family and friends. Upon my return at Luton airport, I found a sign, written in my native language, explaining that, although my national ID card was a perfectly valid travel document, the UK Border Agency preferred to see my passport, if possible. No other similar signs in any other languages were visible anywhere. However, not having a passport, I just went through with my ID card. The very professional officer explained to me that ID cards issued by my home country required longer to be checked for forgery. I said that I was in no hurry, and that I did not own a passport anyway. At the time, my home country required me to pay a significant annual fee to keep the passport valid, even though its nominal expiry date was in ten years after the date of issue. Things changed now. Long story short, after a couple of minutes, the gentleman welcomed me into the UK and I was on my way.

In 2013, I travelled from London to Dublin. Knowing that Ireland adopted the Euro, I — mistakenly — assumed that it also adopted the border policy of the Continent. In fact, when we landed in Dublin, we went through the usual police checks. However, when going back to the UK, police checked the papers of the first couple of people in the line, and then let the rest of us through without further questions.

Since 2012, I frequently travelled in and out of the UK, often by plane. Every time I went back to the UK, I was greeted by that very same sign, in my native language, informing that my papers were less worthy than others. More recently, the UKBF has become increasingly confrontational when given national ID cards issued by my home country — and by a few others, although these “few” change frequently. I cannot ignore that recent international events have shaped and changed border policies across many EU countries, particularly when dealing with non-EU citizens. This provided the UK with the opportunity to implement stricter border controls that uncannily match national political agendas.

Anyway, back to the point of this post. I have been moving a lot between the UK and my home country since July. I have been in the UK since last week, for personal and professional reasons, and my flight back to my home country is scheduled for Friday morning. My girlfriend and I had to take an unexpected trip to Munich over the weekend. We started planning the trip on Thursday, and by Friday night we were getting ready to wake up at 4am the next morning. We all know what happened on Friday night. My girlfriend and I both figured that travelling was going to be a little harder than usual, but we also figured that we were both EU citizens with a history of travelling across Europe, and very rarely outside, so we thought we were going to be fine.

Upon landing in Munich, the German border police officer asked my girlfriend to present another form of identification in addition to her national ID card. She showed her driving licence. She does have a passport, but she had not picked it up. I was let through with just my ID card. Our flight back to the UK was on Sunday night. We made our way to the passport check desks without thinking twice. My girlfriend went first. The officer asked her for an additional form of identification, she presented the driving licence. I was called forward by the same officer — she had asked if we were travelling together. I gave her my ID card and my driving licence, just in case. The officer asked us if we lived in the UK. I do not speak a word of German, so my girlfriend explained to her that she was working in London, and I was a student in the UK, although currently not based in the UK. The officer was confused. She phoned her supervisor, asked me if I spoke English, which she confirmed to her supervisor, and then asked me to see my student card, and if I had proof of my return trip to my home country. I did have my student card, but I did not have a copy of my return booking with me. How could I reasonably have assumed that I was going to be asked if I was travelling back to my home country while travelling within Europe, and between countries that had not shut their borders closed, as far as I knew? We asked if this was due to stricter policies on the UK part, in the wake of Paris attacks. She said no, she just said that our national ID cards are easily forged. I refrained from asking how come they were not as easily forged just last May, when we travelled to Berlin. I had to hold myself back very hard, and my gallbladder kept complaining until we reached London. Where, I should say, some surprisingly polite and agreeable UK border police officers let us through without even asking if we had a passport instead, and barely checking our ID cards.

Times are tough, I get it, and I get that tougher security policies are being implemented every day. I do not have to like all of them, and some of them seem plain ineffective, if not stupid, but I get it. I think the guy sitting next to me on the plane got it too, while stitching patches to a pair of trousers using needle and thread, and a pair of scissors.

The situation with travel papers for EU citizens moving within the EU is unclear. The law states a set of rules on one hand, but allows member States to bend those rules on the other hand. The situation with the UK is unnerving enough, with some of the border policing staff acting increasingly on the verge of harassment, and making the whole process feel extremely arbitrary. Now it would seem that Schengen countries too are adopting stricter and stricter interpretations of “rapid and straightforward visual check for signs of falsification and tampering” without giving further, clear explanations.

So, are we EU citizens not allowed to travel freely within Europe anymore? Saying so would be political suicide. Masking such a statement behind the current refugees crisis would however make it more acceptable to the public opinion. It is this lack of clear political statements that is making Europe seem increasingly opaque, inappropriately intrusive when policies are not explained clearly enough. It seems to me that there are two ways out of this.

  1. We declare Europe over. The EU has never truly been a political subject with clear unity of intents. EU citizens are growing more and more disaffectionate with a perceivedly distant institution that only seems to care about trivial matters, and which policies are never really explained.
  2. We get real, and make the leap towards a federation of States with a true federal government that can express political intents, where all the member States are truly equal, and their views are taken into account, and distilled in a true unitary European policy.

In the meanwhile, I will keep making a point of travelling without a passport for as long as I am allowed to — if only for the fact that I do not have one. I wish that the day when I will not be allowed to anymore will never come.

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