The Debate Over the EU’s Open Border Policy in the Wake of the Paris Attacks

BY JULIANNA FAYNLEYB – On November 13, 2015, eight terrorists associated with ISIS launched a series of attacks in Paris, France, killing over 120 and injuring another 352. Armed with assault rifles and suicide vests, the terrorists systematically attacked six locations within the city, including the Stade de France where French President Hollande was attending a soccer match.

President Hollande, describing the attacks as an “act of war against France,”[1] quickly declared a national state of emergency and announced the country’s borders would be closed.[2] While the President’s office later clarified that the borders would remain open with heightened security[3], the President’s initial message, and more significantly the attacks themselves, have reignited the presence of Europe’s migrant crisis.[4]

Prior to the attacks, the European Union was already facing unprecedented pressure to its border-free policy[5] known as the Schengen system.[6] The influx of refugees fleeing Syria had caused a number of European countries, including Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to introduce some form of border control over the past few months.[7] Now analysts warn that the attack on the French capital will potentially fuel the rise of Europe’s conservative parties who previously warned other parties and civilians of the danger uncontrolled migration into the European Union.[8]

Such rhetoric has already begun in France. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, warned reporters that urgent action is required in order to destroy Islamic fundamentalism.[9] Le Pen went on to advocate that France regain control of its borders and expel illegal immigrants.[10] Furthermore, conservative French lawmaker Jacques Myard argued that the “Schengen’s policy of open borders is a failure when it comes to national defense.”[11] Adding fuel to the the debate is that evidence suggests at least one of the Paris attackers “crossed into Europe via the island of Leros, a prime landing point for…Syrian refugees.”[12]

The European Union views the Schengen system as one of its proudest achievements, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing “to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.”[13] After a thwarted attack on a French train earlier this year, French officials asked the European Union to tighten internal borders.[14] The European Commission rejected the request, noting that the open border principle is non-negotiable.[15] Additionally, 57% of respondents to a survey said “the free movement of people and goods is the most positive outcome of the E.U.’s creation.”[16]

When considering the open border policy, there is a need to balance the goals of protecting the individuals currently living inside the European Union and preserving the principles of the policy, such as giving individuals a chance to move freely to a country for a better life. Creating a balance will be daunting in the wake of the Paris attacks and the possibility of future attacks that many nationals fear are imminent. Although protecting the lives and maintaining the safety of the citizens are the governments’ first priorities, the governments will have to implement some kind of policy reform to the Schengen system. The reform will have to maintain the open border principles while also minimizing opportunities for both ISIS radicals to cross into the European Union and train attackers who intend to inflict more violence to the western world.


[1] Gavin Hewitt, Paris attacks: Impact on border and refugee policy, BBC, (Nov. 15, 2015).

[2] Matt Phillips and Jason Karaian, France declares a state of emergency, tightens its borders, and sends 1,500 troops to Paris, QUARTZ, (last updated Nov. 13, 2015, 9:03PM).

[3] Id.

[4] Tajha Cappellet-Lanier, What’s Next for Migrants After Paris?, THE ATLANTIC, (Nov. 14, 2015).

[5] Phillips, supra, note 2.

[6] Peter Foster, Paris attacks put dagger through heart of liberal Europe, THE TELEGRAPH, (last updated Nov. 14, 2015, 12:22PM).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Cappellet-Lanier, supra, note 4.

[11] Simon Shuster, Free Travel in Europe Could Be a Casualty of the Paris Attacks, TIME, (Nov. 14, 2015).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

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