EU at a crossroads: Restrict borders or keep them open?

A Hungarian customs officer checks passports at a border crossing in Roszke, Hungary.

Steve Chiotakis: European leaders are meeting in Brussels today to discuss border controls within the European Union. For a decade-and-a-half, the Bloc has enjoyed free travel between most EU countries.

But as Christopher Werth reports, that arrangement may be due for an overhaul.


CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Tearing down the checks at border crossings has made tourism and trade within Europe a lot easier. For example, if you were to rent a car in Southern France, as I did recently, you could drive the 1,500 miles to the Russian border in Estonia, passing through six countries without stopping to show your passport. And the same holds true for truck drivers hauling goods across the continent.

MAURICE FRASER: The economic benefits of free movement have been enormous for the European Union.

Maurice Fraser is with the think-tank Chatham House.

FRASER: It also poses certain problems and challenges.

He says Europe's internal open borders policy is being tested by the influx of roughly 40,000 illegal migrants from North Africa since the uprisings in Tunisia and Libya began earlier this year. Most set sail for Italy, the closest landing when crossing the Mediterranean. From there, they can travel throughout Europe.

FRASER: The European Union is not equipped to deal with that scale of migration flow, particularly in a very short period of time.

In response, officials in France and Denmark threw up temporary border stops, much to the anger of other European leaders who say it violates Europe's agreement to keep those borders open. The debate at the summit today is whether countries should be able to impose border controls more often when illegal migration rises.

Hugo Brady is with the Centre for European Reform.

HUGO BRADY: The current questions being asked about passport free travel, in one sense are a bit like the questions being raised about the future of the euro.

Such as, when countries with large external borders like Italy and Greece experience spikes in illegal migration, should other European countries offer financial help? And what happens when a country doesn't do enough to prevent illegal migrants from reaching Europe in the first place?

BRADY: For example, it's not outside the bounds of possibility that Greece might be threatened with expulsion from the passport free travel area if it can't maintain it's own borders better.

Which makes that two European clubs Greece might have to leave. But, Brady says, slowing down tourists and cargo trucks between countries would also carry an economic cost, so if you're planning a road trip across Europe anytime soon, there shouldn't be too many obstacles.

In London, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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