Why Cameron won’t criticise Schengen

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels which left over 30 people dead and hundreds injured, the referendum debate has returned to the question of security, in so far as it had ever left it.

Since the attacks there has been renewed criticism of Schengen. Critics have said that Schengen is allowing terrorists to move freely in Europe and is thereby endangering Europeans. Former Conservative leader Lord Howard claimed that “Europe is holding up a welcome sign to terrorists”. This echoed comments made by the former head of Interpol that Europe’s open border arrangement was “like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe.”

In response to the backlash, the Prime Minister said that it was “not appropriate” to offer criticism so soon after the attacks. But that was on Tuesday 22nd. Just over a week later the Prime Minister has still not challenged the assertion that Schengen aids terrorists.

Given that the Prime Minister is leading the Remain campaign, he has a strong incentive to challenge the claim, which risks leading voters to back Brexit. If he has not done so that is because the claim is beyond contention. Had Cameron sought to deny it he would have damaged his credibility and thereby set back the Remain cause.

If terrorists benefit from the absence of borders within the Schengen area, why isn’t the Prime Minister raising concerns with EU leaders?

Perhaps Cameron doesn’t feel the need. If countries within Schengen are already questioning the arrangement they might be better off reaching their own conclusion. Criticism of Schengen from outside of it might not go down very well, and could even be counterproductive. “Mêlez-vous de vos propres affaires” could be the European response, particularly when UK-EU relations are already strained enough as it is.

The Prime Minister may also realise that criticising Schengen would strengthen Leave by drawing attention to a problem with the EU that he cannot remedy. Furthermore, if the EU remained committed to the principle of free movement in the face of his criticism it would offer another reminder of the limits of British influence within the EU.

In short, Cameron won’t criticize Schengen because to do so would risk placing further strain on Britain’s relationship with other EU members, as well as being a gift to the Leave campaign.