PARIS — The journey of Brahim Aoussaoui, the jihadist who carried out an attack that killed three people in the Notre-Dame basilica in the southern French city of Nice on October 29, epitomizes the flaws of the Schengen Area.

At the end of September, Aoussaoui arrived from Tunisia on the island of Lampedusa, in the Italian south, like tens of thousands of others before him. He spent a few days on a quarantine ship because of coronavirus preventive measures before he disembarked in the port city of Bari. He was then instantly arrested by the police — who ordered him to leave the country within seven days — before the Bari prefecture released him. This radicalized man was careful not to leave the same way he came, and went north instead. A few days later, he crossed the Franco-Italian border.

The Italian authorities failed. They were required, like any Schengen member state, to deny entry into European territory to a migrant who didn't meet the necessary conditions and should have arranged for his return journey. But France is guilty as well. Despite having re-established controls at its internal borders 2015 in the fight against terrorism, it was unable to intercept this illegal entry into its territory.

The Schengen Area will never be a true fortress because the rights of migrants and asylum seekers will always prevail over security.

This is how the Schengen Area works in reality. It has nothing to do with a "migrant sieve" as the far right parties like to portray. The 2015 attacks in France and Belgium and the increased immigration levels the same year prompted European leaders to raise their alert level significantly. Several steps have been taken to strengthen border control, including increasing the power of the European border and coast guard agency Frontex. With success: since 2013, the flow of migrants entering Europe via the Mediterranean has never been so low.

It seems the Schengen Area is operating on an unstable balance.

On paper, freedom and security within the zone have an imperative counterpart in the form of assiduous surveillance of the external borders. But this principle has long been neglected and states do no apply it seriously. Frontex, which coordinates border protection, estimates that 22% of those entering the Schengen Area are not subject to any checks or registration. It is common knowledge, for example, that Italy, which tends to play the victim in this matter, lets through many of the migrants who land on its shores.

Wreck of an abandoned boat in Lampedusa — Photo: Gabriele Maricchiolo/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

The Commission recently offered a solution which would largely solve the problem of taking care of migrants upon their arrival. In less than 12 weeks, it suggests, any migrant unable to justify a right to stay on European territory would be transferred home. To be efficient, this accelerated process would require states to set up closed centers, which would make sure that rejected migrants wouldn't be able to simply vanish as the Tunisian jihadist did.

These kinds of proposals have been debated several times, but they have never seen the light of day in Europe. In a surprising paradox, Italy and Spain, which are on the front line of immigration, are opposed to these proposals. This is certainly because they fear they could be subjected to a double punishment: carrying the immigration burden on their own for good and therefore not gaining, in return, the solidarity of their neighbors. Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte recently repeated that for him, this solution was "unacceptable."

Leaders prefer to point fingers at the weaknesses of the Schengen Area

French president Emmanuel Macron has developed his solution. Believing he has failed to make good on his promise to Europeans to secure external borders, he has been calling for some time for a "reform of the Schengen Area." He wants governments to face their responsibilities and force them to carry out regular assessments of their border management, based on the model of the Eurozone's operations.

Macron's ambition is admirable but the task will be difficult: experience shows that leaders prefer to point fingers at the weaknesses of the Schengen Area rather than scrupulously apply the rules, for fear of losing voters. Wouldn't Italians prefer to offer less scrupulous politicians their votes when they see that their government grants asylum to thousands of migrants every year, rather than continue to let a large proportion of the migrants who arrive on their soil slip away?

Beyond these political agendas, leaders should explain to European citizens that it's impossible to maintain a perfectly sealed area of freedom of movement. First of all, because the thousands of kilometers of borders of the Schengen Area will always offer opportunities for the most determined people to cross them. But, above all, because Europe is a Union, which is based on the respect of the fundamental rights of individuals.

The way the European Commission recently held Frontex accountable, accusing the agency of having turned away migrants off Greece, is symptomatic of this state of mind. Europe doesn't always welcome migrants with all necessary means and openness, but the continent still enforces the rule of law, following international conventions as rigorously as possible. And when public authorities ignore the rules, judges are there to make them remember. In France, the courts cancel 20% of deportations, most of the time for technicalities.

The Schengen Area will never be a true fortress because the rights of migrants and asylum seekers will always prevail over security.

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