For most of us as ordinary travelers to Europe, the modern day EU offers us two very prominent and positive travel experiences.
The first is the wonderful convenience of only needing one single currency as we travel around many different countries – the Euro is currently shared by 17 different ‘Eurozone’ member states. The enormous convenience of only needing to learn one exchange rate and only keep one set of notes and coins in one’s pocket is a huge plus for us all.
The second is the ability to enjoy borderless travel around the European countries that belong to the Schengen Area – approximately 25 countries, mainly EU members. Once we’ve arrived within this zone, we can travel from country to country with no more fuss or difficulty than we experience traveling between states in the US or provinces in Canada.
As everyone must surely know, due to daily headlines in most newspapers, the ongoing viability of the Euro currency is currently being called into question, with huge problems, now proving impossible to ignore, caused by countries with very different economies all sharing the same currency.
Whereas, if these countries had their own independent currencies, there would have been regular devaluations and revaluations of currency exchange rates to keep the countries in balance with each other, the inability to do so, due to a common shared currency, has caused the relativity between countries and the underlying economic support for the Euro to steadily drift further and further apart, and with no current mechanism to allow for currency adjustments to restore the balance between the Eurozone member states.
At the time of writing it is unclear if the resolution of this will lie in the fracturing and possibly complete failure of the Euro common currency, of if instead participating nations will have to cede a huge chunk of their national sovereignty and allow for a central agency to control their budgets, benefits and taxation policies. Both alternatives are unpalatable, albeit for different reasons, and to different members of the Eurozone.
But what about the borderless travel? There are again two elements to the current situation. The first is the obvious element we see as tourists – a nice convenient way to travel around Europe.
But the second element is the one which is now causing problems. These problems are in large part also linked to the Euro currency problem and the economic distortion that is appearing across the EU – ironically a distortion that the EU was originally founded to eliminate but which the Euro policies seem to be exacerbating rather than eliminating.
To put it simply, some countries have better standards of living than others. Some countries have higher employment rates and better paying jobs than others. Part of the borderless European Union concept is the ability of EU citizens to freely move between countries and to live and work where they choose, as and when they choose. The actual reality of this is not yet perfectly achieved, but in general terms, and with a varying and usually not too severe amount of paperwork or hassle, EU citizens can more or less do exactly this.
And so it is unsurprising that there is a movement of people from disadvantaged areas to more advantaged areas. Just like some people in the US will ‘benefit shop’ and move to the state with the most generous benefits, or, in a more positive sense, move to the state with the best employment and career opportunities, the same is happening in the EU. The growing rather than shrinking disparity in living standards, unemployment rates, and incomes is encouraging such trends.
The matter becomes even more complex when one factors in not just the movement of bona fide EU citizens – people born and bred within the EU – but also the movement of refugees or illegal aliens who have managed to gain access to one country within the EU and then move on from that country to other more favorable EU destinations.
Imagine if, say, Texas said to Mexico ‘Okay, we’re sorry about the Alamo and stuff like that, so your citizens can come and live in Texas any time they like if they just fill out this form’. Not only would Texas be flooded with Mexican migrants, but the Mexicans would invariably start to spread out from Texas into adjoining states and then across the country as a whole.
The migrant problem in Europe has become more grave this year due to an influx of refugees as a result of the ‘Arab Spring’ with tens of thousands of refugees arriving (primarily into Italy). Italy decided it didn’t want to host all these people alone, so it gave 20,000 of the refugees temporary residency permits, which allowed them to then travel outside of Italy and into the rest of the Schengen zone. Many of these refugees were French speaking Tunisians and so they headed directly to France, and France responded by temporarily closing a key rail frontier with Italy.
These types of concerns/issues were why Britain and Ireland refused to join the Schengen zone right from its initial creation.
Greece has problems with illegal aliens entering the country from Turkey, and in an effort to stop these people from then ‘leaking’ into the rest of the EU, other EU nations have shared responsibility for policing the frontier between Greece and Turkey.
Denmark has restored Customs controls at its borders with Sweden and Germany.
It is unclear if this trend will continue, and if we will end up getting stuck in lines while traveling between countries once more, but it is interesting to see another part of the European dream foundering on the rock of reality.
All the more reason, of course, for us to rush to Europe and enjoy the travel benefits of the EU while it still precariously remains in its present form.