Train Attack No Reason to Return European Border Controls

Closing Europe’s borders would be an emotional overreaction to the foiled terror attack on the Thalys train.

Passengers board the Thalys high-speed train in Paris, France, October 31, 2005
Passengers board the Thalys high-speed train in Paris, France, October 31, 2005 (Dolan Halbrook)

Friday’s foiled terror attack on the high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris is no reason to reinstate border controls in Europe. The freedom of movement is one of the European Union’s greatest accomplishments and one that most directly benefits its citizens.

Of course, open borders make it easier for criminals and terrorists to travel between countries. But closing them — or impeding travel and trade with cumbersome controls — would be an emotional overreaction.

Borders didn’t stop January’s terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French newspaper known for lampooning Islam, in Paris, nor a shooting at a Jewish supermarket there.

Borders didn’t stop shootings at a synagogue and a meeting with Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, known for his farcical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, in Copenhagen, Denmark the next month.

Borders didn’t stop the 2004 Madrid train bombings nor the 2005 attacks on the London Underground.

But the absence of border checks has compelled closer cooperation between security agencies.

The suspect in Friday’s attack, a Moroccan native, was known to counterterrorism authorities in Spain where he lived for seven years. His name, Ayoub el-Khazzani, was entered into a pan-European database of suspected Islamic radicals in 2012, according to Spanish news reports. When he moved to France in 2014, the Spanish shared their intelligence with the French, an unnamed Spanish official told the El Mundo daily. “France had him under control until [he] decided to leave for Syria. From then on, neither they nor we had any news about him.”

Islamists are battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Hundreds of young Muslim fanatics from Europe have traveled to the country to join their jihad.

The suspect later lived in Belgium where, according a French newspaper, he might have had connections with a group involved in a shooting in January.

Belgium deployed soldiers in Antwerp and Brussels that month to guard Jewish schools and government buildings after Belgian, French and German police carried out a series of counterterror operations. A shootout in Verviers in southeastern Belgium left two suspects dead.

Khazzani boarded the Thalys train in Belgium and was overpowered by passengers, including an American soldier on holiday, in northern France when he prepared to fire his assault rifle.

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel has called for consultations with France, Germany and the Netherlands to discuss raising security on international trains.

The European Commission cautioned that the Schengen treaty on freedom of movement in Europe was “nonnegotiable” but said increased controls could be allowed “if they do not have an effect equivalent to border checks.”

The benefits of Schengen are indisputable. It makes it easier for Europeans to visit other countries and for non-Europeans to visit the continent. Europe is still the world’s most popular tourist destination. The ease of travel is a huge boon to the tourism and hospitality industries.

Average Europeans benefit in many ways. Airline tickets, for example, have become 40 percent cheaper since border controls were lifted. Mobile phone costs have come down 70 percent.

Open borders have also greatly reduced the time and cost of moving goods across Europe. Between 5 and 10 percent of Europe’s economic output is generated by cross-border services.

A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation last year found that the internal market — which is more comprehensive than Schengen alone — added hundreds of euros to the incomes of most Europeans every year.

It makes no sense to throw that all away because one Muslim fanatic tried to kill people on a train.

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