You Can Have a Welfare State, or You Can Have Open Borders, But …

Christopher Caldwell does not quote Milton Friedman’s famous observation in this New York Times opinion piece, but it underlies it.  Caldwell is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard and columnist for the Financial Times – as well as being the author of the most important book on Europe that I’ve read in years, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe.  This opinion piece addresses the same general concern as that book, updated to today: immigration and borders in Europe.  In many ways, after all, at least alongside the sovereign debt crisis in Europe is the startling re-introduction of border controls in Continental Europe, and a call by Sarkozy and Berlusconi for a revision of the famous Schengen agreement removing border controls among twenty-two European states (not including the UK and Ireland).

The present crisis started when refugees began fleeing Tunisia by boat in the wake of January’s revolution. Italy was a natural destination: its island of Lampedusa lies south of Tunis and just 70 miles off the African coast. These refugees were joined by others from Libya, and by late May almost 40,000 had arrived. Under ordinary circumstances, if you make it to Lampedusa, you can get to Paris or Berlin with few questions asked.

The Schengen agreements, signed in 1985 and 1990, permit passport-free travel within 22 continental countries of the European Union (Britain and Ireland are among the exceptions), as well as non-Union signatories. Along with the euro, Schengen is Europe’s symbol, a milestone in its integration — on a continent long hemmed in by nationalism and bureaucracy, an Italian can travel to Paris without showing papers or changing money. And it’s growing: the European Parliament this week voted overwhelmingly to recommend extending Schengen to the European Union’s two newest members, Bulgaria and Romania.

The union’s treaties assume that whatever country receives migrants will also process their asylum applications and look after the migrants during the adjudication of their status. But Italian bureaucrats are overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of applicants, and the Italian public, like most of the rest of Europe, does not like mass migration.

With the slyness that is his political calling card, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, issued six-month residency permits to 8,000 of the newcomers this spring, allowing them free movement within the European Union. The Tunisians, who are largely Francophone, then headed for France, turning Mr. Berlusconi’s political problem into that of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. In April Mr. Sarkozy shocked European leaders by re-establishing Franco-Italian border controls for several hours. Under Schengen, countries may re-man their borders only if there is a “grave threat to public order or internal security” — say, soccer hooligans. But Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Berlusconi recently wrote a joint letter that called for putting the agreements on hold in case of a big refugee influx.