How life still goes on in the new age of anxiety in Europe
Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks which claimed the lives of more than 130 people last month, fears over the threat of terrorism have rippled far beyond French borders. While France remains in a state of emergency, with soldiers patrolling the streets of Paris and major cities, other European countries have upped security and several have reintroduced border checks.
In the weeks since Parisians were targeted as they kicked off their weekend in bars, restaurants, a music club and a football stadium, I have travelled across several European borders and seen how cities including Madrid, London, Geneva, and Amsterdam have tightened security. This week Geneva, the Swiss city which is home to dozens of UN agencies and international organisations, raised its alert level.
"It's the new age of anxiety for Europe," observed one friend and Brussels resident when the city went into lockdown due to fears of an attack in the wake of what happened in Paris. The bleak question posed by others is whether this might become the new normal for Europe.
In Rome this week, soldiers stood at metro stations and mingled with priests, nuns and pilgrims around St Peter's Square. The Italian capital is jittery because last Tuesday marked the inauguration of the Pope's Jubilee, a year-long event which is expected to massively swell the number of tourists that wander its cobbled streets each year. Two thousand armed officers will patrol the city every day, monitoring areas where pilgrims and tourists gather. The city's police chief has said the heightened security is in response to what he called a "Jubilee in the time of ISIS (Isil)" as the extremist group that carried out the Paris attacks is known. Rome has frequently featured in Isil propaganda, with militants threatening to target the city. Plans are under way to install advanced security screening at the Colosseum, the most visited tourist site in Italy, after it appeared on Isil social media. An Italian security official told me they estimate that around 90 Italian nationals have joined Isil in Syria and Iraq - a relatively small number compared with France and Belgium, which have some of the highest - leading to concerns they may return to carry out attacks at home.
The Paris attacks - along with the fact most of those responsible came from Belgium and some may have entered the EU via the Balkans - have prompted some to call into question the principle of a 'Europe without borders' - one of the cornerstones of European integration. Others were making this argument even before the French capital was targeted, as the refugee crisis at Europe's doorstep became more acute and thousands streamed across the EU's internal borders, raising tensions among member states. The day before the attacks, European Council President Donald Tusk warned that the future of the EU's Schengen passport-free travel zone - of which Ireland and the UK are not part - was at risk if European governments did not do more to restore trust in the security of the union's external borders.
In the anguished commentary that followed the Paris attacks, several declared Schengen was now dead, insisting that there had to be a tradeoff between security and openness. The temporary reinstatement of controls at some borders - including France's border with Belgium and Germany's border with Austria - some two decades after they were first abolished under the Schengen agreement was interpreted in some quarters as a possible sign of things to come.
Schengen, named after the Luxembourg village where the agreement was signed by five initial countries in 1985, now includes 26 states, including four non-members of the EU. Its defenders argue that rolling back Schengen now would actually undermine counter-terrorism efforts as participating states would have to re-allocate crucial resources - including thousands of police officers - to checking travel documents at their borders.
The future of Schengen as we know it aside, there are also concerns that tougher security measures across the continent after Paris may result in profiling and the perception that Muslims are being singled out. A friend told me of the case of a British-born man of Pakistani descent he knows who has never been involved in any political or other activity that could put him on anyone's radar. He was recently taken off the Eurostar and refused entry to France on the grounds that he was considered to pose a threat to "public order and/or national security" - presumably due to his Muslim name.
Another friend, a European whose family name is of Arab origin, was forced to go through security twice at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport after arriving from Austria.
As Europe comes to terms with the new post-Paris realities, it must draw strength from what unites it rather than divides it and use that as an antidote to crippling fear. With the far-right on the rise across the continent, too much is at stake to do otherwise.