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Schengen – the small village that changed Europe

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Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny - Reporter at The European Times News

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The Schengen Agreement known today was signed in a small village in the south-eastern part of Luxembourg – a place steeped in symbolism

Luxembourg can be crossed by car in just over an hour. Before you know it, you’ll be in nearby France, Germany or Belgium, only the most observant will notice the border sign and the flags of the Grand Duchy far behind.

This possibility is due in part to the country’s small size, but also to a Luxembourgish legacy: a treaty signed 38 years ago in the small village of Schengen in the south-east of the country. The now famous Schengen Agreement has dramatically changed the way we travel in Europe, and it continues to evolve today.

Not so little Luxembourg

At first glance, Luxembourg could be perceived as a commercial center where money is simply made. It takes up very little space on the map and is often inadvertently overlooked as a destination in favor of its neighbors. A founding member of what is now the European Union, this small country is home to one of the EU’s three capitals – Luxembourg (along with Brussels and Strasbourg) – and continues to play a key role in the union’s governance.

The country has the distinction of being a constitutional monarchy situated between the two giant republics of France and Germany, and has paid the price for its location in not one but two world wars, meaning it has plenty of rich and intriguing history to offer. It has a thriving local wine industry, an impressive restaurant scene, countless museums and monuments (from the UNESCO-listed fortress and old town center to the grave of General George Patton Jr.) and a seemingly innate love of seafood, cheese and all things sweet.

In 1985, Luxembourg played an important role in creating a landmark piece of legislation – the signing of the Schengen Agreement – a unilateral agreement guaranteeing border-free travel within European member states.

In the footsteps of this historical place, tourists can travel along the Moselle Valley – a quiet and unpretentious part of the eastern part of Luxembourg. The Moselle River lazily acts as a natural border between Luxembourg and Germany. The valley is clearly central to the country’s winemaking, with vineyards stretching across the low hillsides, broken only by towns and villages scattered across the hills.

On the west bank of the Moselle lies the little Schengen. With roughly 4,000 inhabitants, it’s certainly not the big-name, bright-lights destination one might expect for an agreement that’s changing the way people travel in Europe. Yet it was here, on a gloomy morning on June 14, 1985, that representatives of Belgium, France, Luxembourg, West Germany (then) and the Netherlands gathered to officially sign the agreement for this revolutionary new borderless zone.

The background

The number of European treaties, alliances, cross-alliances and counter-treaties that arose in the second half of the 20th century is mind-boggling. The list screams red tape, but understanding the various alliances at the time is of great importance in creating the Schengen environment.

As World War II drew to a close in 1944, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands united to create the Benelux. These three countries recognize the benefits that working together will bring in the coming, inevitably difficult decades, and hope to boost trade through a customs agreement.

Based on the Benelux, in 1957 the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC) – an extended customs union of the six founding countries (Benelux and West Germany, France and Italy).

At the beginning of the 1980s, the EEC had 10 member states, and while only fast border checks were in place between them, the reality was that it still held up traffic, required human resources and was increasingly seen as unnecessary bureaucracy. However, the concept of one-way travel without internal borders divides members, with half of them insisting on free movement only for EU citizens and thus remaining committed to internal border checks to distinguish between EU and non-EU citizens EU.

As Martina Kneip, head of the European Schengen Museum, explains: “The idea of open borders in 1985 was something extraordinary – a utopia. No one believed that it could become a reality.”

The remaining five member countries (Benelux, France and West Germany) that wish to carry out the free movement of people and goods are left to initiate the creation of the area to which Schengen will give its name.

Why Schengen?

As Luxembourg takes over the presidency of the EEC, the small country has the right to choose the place where the signing of this treaty takes place. Schengen is the only place where France and Germany share a border with a Benelux country

As a meeting place for three countries, the choice of Schengen is steeped in symbolism. To ensure it was neutral, the signatories gathered aboard the ship MS Princesse Marie-Astrid to write their proposal. The ship is anchored as close as possible to the triple border that runs down the middle of the Moselle River.

Nevertheless, the signing of Schengen failed to attract much support or attention at the time. Apart from the five EEC member states who are against it, many officials, from all countries, simply do not believe it will come into force or succeed. So much so that not a single head of state from the five signatory countries was present on the day of the signing.

From the beginning, the agreement was undervalued, “considered an experiment and something that wouldn’t last,” according to Kneipp. Added to this is the inevitable red tape which ensures that the complete abolition of internal borders in the five founding states will not take place until 1995.

The Schengen area today

Today, the Schengen area consists of 27 member states. Of these, 23 are members of the EU, and four (Iceland, Switzerland, Norway and Liechtenstein) are not.

As then, as now, Schengen has its critics. A migrant crisis has undermined the Schengen idea, giving opponents of open borders plenty of “ammunition” to attack the inclusion efforts put forward by the agreement. Nevertheless, the Schengen area continues to grow, although the accession process remains cumbersome. Policy still determines who can join, as new members must be accepted unanimously. Bulgaria and Romania have repeatedly been vetoed to join Schengen due to concerns about corruption and the security of their external borders.

  However, for many the pros of the Schengen area far outweigh the cons. As Kneipp notes: “The Schengen Agreement is something that affects the daily lives of all Schengen member states – around 400 million people.”

What is happening to Schengen itself?

Since Schengen is far from any major thoroughfares, chances are you’ll only end up there if you make a conscious effort to visit. It is about 35 km by car from Luxembourg City and the route goes through forests, farmland and down the Moselle valley. The scenery changes noticeably as you descend the rural hills towards the town of Remich. From here to the epicenter of Schengen – the European Museum – the road is pleasant, winding between the vine-covered slopes and the Moselle River. Here, the story of the creation of the Schengen area is skillfully told through interactive exhibitions and monuments.

Be sure to check out the showcase of official caps of border guards from the member states at the time they joined the area, each demonstrating a national identity sacrificed for the sake of Schengen functioning.

In front of the museum, parts of the Berlin Wall are placed to remind us that walls – in this case the world-famous reinforced concrete wall of one of the founding members of the agreement – do not have to stay in place forever. In front of the museum you will find three stelae or steel plates, each with its own star commemorating the founders. Finally, there are the striking Columns of Nations, which beautifully depict iconic landmarks from each member of the Schengen area.

Of course, there is more than just international law in this peaceful border village. Visitors can extend their stay to enjoy a cruise on the Moselle River, hiking or cycling in the surrounding hills, or try a crémant (the region’s revered white sparkling wine) for a true taste of Schengen life – the little a village whose name will remain forever in history.

Photo credit: consilium.europa.eu

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