Why Cameron won’t criticise Schengen

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels (30 dead, hundreds injured), the referendum campaign returns to the question of security.

Critics have said that Schengen – Europe’s open border zone – 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 claims by the former head of Interpol that the open border arrangement was “like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe.”

The Prime Minister has responded by saying that it is “not appropriate” to offer criticism so soon after the attacks. But that was on Tuesday 22nd. Just over a week later Cameron 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 that a central tenet of the European project is exacerbating the threat of terrorism in Europe. If he has not done so that is because the claim is beyond contention. Had Cameron sought to deny it he would only have damaged his credibility.

If terrorists benefit from the absence of borders within the Schengen area, which helps them get to target areas and subsequently make their escape, why isn’t Cameron raising concerns with EU leaders?

Perhaps the PM 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 a country outside of it might not go down well. “Mêlez-vous de vos propres affaires” could be the European response. This is especially true in this delicate time in UK-EU relations.

Cameron may also realise that criticising Schengen risks strengthening Leave by drawing attention to a problem with the EU he cannot remedy. And there is the risk that the EU would remain committed to the principle of free movement whatever his criticisms. Were this to happen, 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.