Tighter European Borders May Choke ISIS—and Trade

November 20, 2015, 10:50 PM UTC
Migrant people walk on both sides of the metal fence near the Hungarian village of Asotthalom of the Hungarian-Serbian border on August 27, 2015. As Hungary scrambles to ramp up defences on its border with Serbia, refugees continued to surge into the country in record numbers, police figures confirmed. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK (Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Attila Kisebenedek—AFP/Getty Images

In an emergency meeting Friday morning called in response to last week’s Paris terrorist attacks, European justice ministers agreed to step up border controls for European citizens entering the E.U., and to begin steps towards better intelligence sharing.

This tightening of borders is part of an urgent struggle to preserve freedom of movement for citizens between European countries. That freedom was ushered in by the 1985 Schengen agreement, whose relaxing of intra-European border controls has become part of both European identity, and, with the Euro itself, a pillar of European economic integration.

But public anxiety linking this year’s influx of Syrian refugees with last week’s attacks are putting Schengen under unprecedented pressure. Far-right voices, including that of French politician Marine Le Pen, are calling with increased passion for the reversal of the agreement. Even before the attacks, several nations had temporarily suspended portions of Schengen to better deal with the refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, even as he issued a stark declaration of war against ISIS, French President François Hollande emphasized the importance of controlling access at Europe’s outer borders, rather than those between member states.

Because, however awful the human cost of last week’s attacks, the economic impacts of restricting trade lanes would be at least as far-reaching. According to the procurement agency Beroe, 75% of E.U. freight trade moves by road. Checking immigration documents for truckers, potentially at multiple borders per day, would be extremely costly.

Even before Friday’s meeting, there was already evidence of the effects of tighter border security on European trade. Refugees attempting to reach Britain aboard trucks and trains at the French port of Calais through the early parts of 2015 caused accidents and delays costing the British freight industry more than one million euros daily. When Germany and Austria set up temporary border controls in September, massive traffic jams were reported. According to a spokesperson for the Dutch transportation industry in September, a one-hour delay at each national border would cost Dutch shippers alone more than 600 million euros annually.

But the indirect costs of tightened borders would be even greater. In a 2014 study, researchers found that a 1% increase in migration between two Schengen signatory nations resulted in a nearly equal increase in interstate trade. Curtailing that trade would have a particular impact on Europe’s automotive and agricultural sectors, which rely on speedy delivery.

In recent months, borders have been temporarily tightened by not only France, Germany, and Austria, but also Hungary, Denmark, and Sweden. Even those temporary measures could add drag to a European economy that’s showing weakening growth, despite a boost from low energy prices and cash injections from the European Central Bank. A security strategy that worsens that situation would be hard to consider a success.


For more on Europe’s persistent troubles, watch this Fortune video:

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