Andrew Hill Business must fight to save EU’s passport-free vision

People, not companies, are at the heart of the battle over the European Union’s passport-free travel zone. France, Italy and Denmark are trying to crack down on the movement of migrants across their borders. The European Commission is concerned that the so-called Schengen system could be undermined. But business should be worried, too.

Think how many companies’ strategies are now based on the principle of free movement of people and goods between the 25 members of the zone. If “temporary” border controls were reinstated, tourism would be the first to suffer. As Denis MacShane, former UK minister for Europe, tweeted on Friday:

Schengen rules allow for passport, custom checks on temporary basis. Will Germans put up with 10km queues to go into Italy, France 4 hols?

Then comes freight. Among the first beneficiaries of the lifting of continental European border controls in the early 1990s were trucking companies and their customers. Nobody’s suggesting reimposing the paperwork that used to swamp lorry-drivers at EU border crossings, but the more clogged the frontier, the less profitable the cross-border traders.

I wrote this week about the difficulty companies face in shedding their nationality – cultural roots go deep – but even the most modestly multinational business understands that it can be counter-productive to revert to nationalism and protectionism when threatened. These companies should be fighting to keep EU borders open, in their own self-interest, if nothing else.

Pioneers of the Schengen agreement struggled to make the original zone stick. In 1992, as border controls were being lifted, I visited Schengen itself – a Luxembourg village on the border with Germany and France where the original agreement on a barrier-free Europe was signed in 1990. I interviewed Rene Zimmer, whom I described (prematurely?) as its “last customs and immigration chief”, as he prepared to close the border post on the bridge over the Moselle and head off for early retirement. He was philosophical about the change, but other locals were not. As I wrote at the time (the original piece is too ancient for me to find a link to it):

In the Cafe International, opposite the bridge, proprietor Ernest Schemel, 73, his son Guy and a handful of Schengen’s 350 locals believe the single market will bring trouble. They see more crime, more bureaucracy, more uncertainty and, at worst, redundancy for those villagers who for years have made their living from the frontier.

Populist concerns, it seems, are nothing new.