Schengen, border controls, and travel red tape: Is free movement history?

The man who pays his way

Border Czech: travel to Prague once involved stringent controls
Border Czech: travel to Prague once involved stringent controls

The first time I went to Prague, in the 1980s, the journey was full of bureaucratic bother. A Czechoslovak visa was merely a tricky overture. You also needed to show that you were enriching the economy with hard currency. Either you booked a package holiday under the auspices of the state travel monolith, Cedok, or visited the City of London outpost of the national bank to swap sterling at an imaginary exchange rate for a “currency voucher” that had to be converted, on arrival, to near-worthless koruna.

The journey, starting with a £28 Monarch flight from Luton to West Berlin, was equally tortuous. At Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin, the border guards' stony faces were chiselled by Central Casting. The overnight train to Prague was enlivened by a 4am knock on the compartment door at the frontier between two “friendly” countries, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, prefacing what felt like a police raid.

Ten days ago, when I flew direct to the Czech capital to research 48 Hours in Prague, the fare was just £1 higher and the single passport check was accompanied by a smile.

Welcome to the Schengen zone, named for a small village where France, Germany and Luxembourg converge, and allowing free movement from Rhodes to Reykjavik. A couple of days later, I boarded a bus to Wroclaw in Poland, breezing across the old frontier post without so much as a change of gear thanks to the 1990 convention that abolished border controls.

Back to frontiers?

This week, Europe's interior ministers demanded that frontiers be resurrected for two years in order to control the flow of refugees across Europe. As The Independent has revealed, the introduction of passport checks has already put paid to direct Copenhagen-Sweden trains, while France polices its main border crossings after the 13 November atrocities.

Is free movement history: “Schengend” as it has been called? I asked some wise travel men and women for their views – starting with Edmund King, president of the AA: “At Easter, I drive my sons to a football tournament on the Dutch/German border. I love the ease of driving through France, Belgium and Holland without having to stop. Unfortunately our jeux sans frontières may well be a thing of the past.

“As well as queues at the main border posts, smaller roads could be closed in order to channel the traffic to the official checkpoints.”

“Schengen makes Europe seem a wide-open playground for backpackers,” says Tom Hall, Lonely Planet's UK editorial director. He fears the reintroduction of frontier controls could shrink horizons, especially for rail travellers: “The likely end result is less-expansive itineraries and a diminished sense of the wonderful freedom that seizes those with Interrail passes.”

Nicky Gardner, co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine, opposes what she says is all-too-common British Schadenfreude over every Schengen blip – and reminds us of the huge benefits that freedom of mobility has brought to many Europeans. Indeed, she believes the concept of Schengenfreude (“pleasure in Schengen”) still prevails across the Continent: “You'd get the impression that it's almost impossible to travel freely across Europe, but in fact most express and local trains across international borders have been unaffected.”

Manifest destiny

Even if every nation were to reinstate borders, Kate Andrews, co-founder of the rail website Loco2.com, hopes that a 4am knock on the compartment door will not return to haunt travellers: “The suspension of the Schengen zone need not spell disaster for train travel. Most rail operators already require the passenger's name to book a ticket, and others ask for a passport number (for example Trenitalia night trains) or ID for the payment card holder (Deutsche Bahn). So, it would be simple to create a passenger manifest and build a new, more efficient system around it.”

Perhaps, though, all this is merely theatre designed to make pan-European travel look tougher. Even the Iron Curtain failed to seal the East. A piecemeal, 21st-century version designed to control migration across the Continent is likely to prove far less effective– though it might give travellers a frisson of the trans-European tension that prevailed in darker times.

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