Had I blinked, I would have missed it. We approached the German-French border at nearly 100mph, and our speed dipped not one jot as we drove from one country to the next. The Rhine, still watched but no longer warred over, provides a visual reminder that this is one of Europe’s great divides, but the border posts, check points and barriers have disappeared. Even the kind of ‘Welcome to…’ signs with which British local authorities mark their boundaries are absent from many points where Gauls and Teutons abut.
Returning to Germany a few days later, I did notice the former checkpoint. Not more than 20 years old, the building is boarded up and distinguished only by a thick layer of dirt.
Europe’s unguarded borders are the result of the Schengen Agreement of 1985. Now covering 26 countries, it has led to the gradual whittling away of identity checks. Today 400 million citizens move within an area of 1.6 million square miles as though it was one country. With border crossing so easy, it is hardly surprising that big retailers along many borders advertise on both sides and employ staff specially to serve the ‘guest shoppers’. Commuting to work in a neighboring country is increasingly common and 17% of EU citizens expect to work abroad at some point in their lifetimes.
There is some residual skepticism about life without checkpoints, of course. Nicolas Sarkozy voiced just such concerns in his 2012 re-election campaign. One upshot of his defeat is that free movement still has the upper hand.
The contrast with my passage between Montenegro and Croatia a few weeks earlier was stark. Twenty five years ago you could drive between these former Yugoslavian republics just as you can today between Germany and France. The fraught break up of General Tito’s federation brought that traffic to an abrupt halt.
Today all who wish to journey between these former sister republics have their credentials scrupulously checked twice, no matter how frequently they make the journey. At both, checkpoints, motorists shut down their engines and submit passports, insurance documents and vehicle registration certificates. All are scrutinised with a seemingly angry ferocity by armed officials. If your paperwork is found wanting, passage is denied. Vehicles are also routinely searched. I watched one apparently holidaying family with ‘GB’ plates emptying their packed boot of childrens’ toys for an item-by-item inspection.
A Montenegrin friend, in his 50s, told me that, despite living within 10 miles of the Dubrovnik, he couldn’t think of a single person of his acquaintance who worked in Croatia. Its not surprising. If either check point runs a bit slow, huge queues build up. I waited for over an hour in the area between border posts one day when most of the Croatian staff were occupied searching cars.
Given the recent animosity between Montenegro and Croatia, perhaps such security is understandable. But is also a chilling reminder of how the operation border posts signals the state of relations between the countries whose territory they enforce.
For the Balkans, however, I am optimistic. A week after I left Croatia, it became a member of the European Union. Montenegro has already adopted the Euro as its currency, and is a candidate for EU membership. I suspect that, in time, there is an irresistible logic to both countries adopting the Schengen principals, thereby making journeying around former Yugoslavia as easy and relaxed as travelling in western Europe is today.
Are there any lessons from this for Britain? I think so. Our island frontiers will never be permeable in the way some county’s are (although there has been a land border in Ireland for nearly a century, of course). But we are beneficiaries of European harmony in more profound ways.
A continent of tolerant neighbouring states is the greatest achievement of the European project that started in 1952 with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, and now finds expression in the European Union. There may be much that is worthy of criticism in the EU – an inefficient, occasionally corrupt bureaucracy, over-enthusiastic rule-making and an essentially neo-liberal economic model.
However, the cost to this country of the twentieth century’s European wars is very nearly incalculably vast. The headlines alone make a grim tally: 1.5 million British lives, the loss of the largest Empire the world has ever seen and debts beside which our current deficit pale.
By comparison, the costs and suggested inconvenience of the EU are laughably small beer. Nevertheless, an apparently growing number of voters in the UK want this country to surrender our membership of the European club – thereby administering the EU its most destabilising blow in sixty years.
UK independence campaigners of all stripes base their case on a galaxy of issues – at least some, entirely bogus. But before anyone is allowed airspace to complain about ‘straight bananas’, itinerant Bulgarians or butter mountains, the question that must be answered is this: If we ditch the EU, what will we put in its place to guarantee peace and harmony between Europe’s nations?
Given the bewildering variety of failed initiatives designed to achieve just this during the millennium of strife that preceded the Treaty of Rome, I struggle to imagine a credible answer. Indifference to the problem, lazy platitudes and ignorant optimism are certainly not enough.
If you want space to reflect on alternatives, I can recommend the tranquil no-man’s land that separates the borders of Croatia and Montenegro where I waited for a seeming eternity to have my passport stamped. Hurry, though. I suspect that this is one ugly problem that will soon be solved by the on-going miracle of inter-European co-operation.