The Paris attacks make the return of border controls essential

This essay was first written in the early hours following the six-attack night of horror in Paris. 

Much in the European fishbowl of terror alarms and refugee floods I knew would look different by the time this came into your hands.  Things would shift, leaders would react and the wheels of response begin to turn.

But a powerful underlying truth would remain unchanged, one of my father’s precepts of what it means to live in a democracy:

The price of liberty, he would say, is eternal vigilance.  A free society was something we had to earn, that we had to  defend.  And to do this, above all, we had to pay attention.

So as I listened to the torrent of high toned and heartfelt condolences from major international states- men and women, I thought this was honest and necessary. And correct.

But it is no longer enough.  Europe – and especially Central Europe where most of us live and work – must act, and plan a robust structure to deal with the on-going realities of a powerful jihadist terror surge and the desolate landscape of failed states driving the refugees.

This must be more than talk. Words, even well meant, have so far, sadly, fuelled the problem – beginning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s noble, but ill judged, declaration of welcome, giving false hope to thousands living in daily desperation in Syria and Afghanistan.

Stakes raised daily

Now, the push back has begun:  Staggering under the tidal wave of refugees pouring into Europe, borders are being tightened by Germany and Austria and by all neighbors along the Balkan route overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis.

The stakes are being raised daily.  Right wing xenophobia, already painfully visible in traditionally tolerant societies like Sweden and the Netherlands, will be turbo-charged by the Paris massacres.

In Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) is polling over 30% and has now overtaken both of the mainstream centrist parties for the first time in the history of the Second Republic. It is not enough for centrist liberals to wring their hands and cry Fascist foul play:  A broad swathe of the population is genuinely – if unreasonably – alarmed and governments have to demonstrate that they have a plan for responding to both the terrorist threat and the refugee crisis, that is realistic, that can, and will, be implemented.

A symbol – but only that

Now what? Responsible leadership has to protect national interests without gutting the civil liberties and values that make Europe what it is.  We have to avoid the paralyzing mistakes the Americans made after 9/11, which punished the wrong people and undermined Western moral authority.

It is time to suspend the Schengen Open Borders Treaty.  Touted as one of the signal achievements of incremental European integration, it is a symbol of the new unified Europe.  But in truth, Schengen is really only that – a symbol.

And the conveniences of passport-free travel are only that – conveniences.

Of course remembering to pack your passport for a day trip to Bratislava or a visit to an affordable dentist in Sopron will be an inconvenience, but not more.  The fundamentals of the free movement of goods and citizens, tariff-free exports and labor mobility, the Erasmus and other student exchange programs – all of these real achievements which make modern Europe tick – would  remain unaffected.

Today, there is no alternative to old-fashioned border controls. This is the most sensible way to manage the human flood endangering the continents stability.

The price of liberty is now, as it has always been, eternal vigilance.