I was in Luxembourg on the evening of 13 November when I received news of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Almost immediately the issue of Schengen and the freedom of movement across Europe without borders was raised by politicians and the media, and began to dominate thoughts and discussion during my visit to this small yet remarkable EU member state, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union.
The atrocity of the slaughter of French citizens relaxing on a Friday evening at the end of a working week, enjoying music, soccer and the restaurants of Paris, was on everyone’s lips. The main purpose of my time in Luxembourg during its EU presidency – to visit and hold meetings at the EU’s key institutions of the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors – rapidly became to fade.
The morning after the Paris atrocities, I was in Schengen, the small Luxembourg hamlet which gave its name to that historic agreement for a Europe without borders signed 30 years ago between France, Germany, and the Benelux Economic Union of Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, just one year after I was first elected an MEP.
Schengen is a hamlet of about 600 people on the banks of the Moselle, in a boat on which the Schengen Agreement was signed on 14 June 1985. The river flows through France, Germany, and Luxembourg; Schengen is where the three countries meet.
People from across the world come to Schengen to visit the site of the signing of the agreement. Aside from enjoying the Moselle region’s fabulous wines, they can now visit the Schengen Museum on the site of a former swimming pool which today belongs to the Ministry of Tourism of Luxembourg.
One of the six founding members of the EU, Luxembourg was both French- and German-speaking and shared borders with both of its much larger neighbours, who had long been in conflict. With its small population it was not a threat to either side and immediately played the role of negotiator and facilitator between the two big European powers.
Luxembourg was the natural choice for the first EU institution, the Coal and Steel Community, because of the country’s history in both industries. It had long been a substantial industrial area, and was in fact one of the world biggest producers and exporters of steel.
But from the beginning Luxembourg was not in favour of being the headquarters of the EU. There was some opposition from the Catholic Church because of fear of threat to its hierarchy in the country, and the then Grand Duke of Luxembourg was not in favour either. Without this opposition, Luxembourg may well have become the headquarters of the EU instead of Brussels.
At the Court of Justice I attended a live hearing, and at the Court of Auditors I raised the need to provide extra funding for immigrant reception, something we need to support even more in light of anti-refugee sentiment in the wake of the Paris attacks. I am pleased that an opinion has now been submitted to the EU Commission recommending that large amounts of unused funds in several EU budget lines is made available, for this purpose which is expected to be considered by the EU Commission soon.
In the meantime, I believe we need to reflect carefully on the historic progress we have made in coming together across the EU before we decide to abandon Schengen and consider whether we now need more co-operation and more Europe.
Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament