Article written by Julia Walsh

There is a frivolous dream among American university students who study in Europe to decorate their passports to later show off their numerous stops and recount the adventures of studying abroad. In order to arrive in Toulouse, I first stopped in Brussels, Belgium to take a connecting flight. In Brussels, I received the ever-anticipated first stamp of my travels. However, once I landed in Toulouse, there was no stamp to be given. The same was true when I flew to Italy and Spain – new countries, but no stamps. In fact, it seemed to me that the agents at the airport hardly gave my passport a second look. This was shocking coming from the United States where entering and exiting the country is guaranteed to be accompanied by a thorough passport inspection. This experience on my first day of studying abroad already gave me an insight into the differences in border security between France and the United States.

The Schengen Agreement and Area

Another moment when I saw very clearly the differences between borders policies in my home country and in France was while driving over the border between France and Spain with my hosts. We were spending the weekend in the Pyrenees, a mountain range which stretches between Southern France and Northern Spain. They informed me that we were very close to the Spanish border and that we could cross over if I would like. My initial reaction was that of panic, since I didn’t have my passport with me. However, it turns out that there were hardly any differences crossing the border, apart from the signs which were now in Spanish. Crossing an international border, which seemed like a big deal to me, was no different than traveling between New York and Pennsylvania, or any other state.

My hosts informed me that this was a result of the Schengen Agreement. After doing a bit of research, I learned that the Schengen Agreement of 1995 followed the Treaty of Maastricht, of 1992. The initial treaty was created among the members of the European Union to encourage integration and community among the member states. Since 1995, the established Schengen Area has expended and now includes 26 countries that do not require individual passports and freedom of travel for people within their borders. Consequently, while traveling by car or plane to all of the countries that border France, there is freedom of travel and no customs agent.

Border security in the United States vs France

The physical barriers of security that are seen at the borders of France and the borders of the United States are quite different. As I saw when passing between France and Spain, there are no customs agents or other control checkpoints when moving between countries in this region. I saw the remnants of what where previously border control stations, however these buildings remain abandoned ever since the 1995 agreement. Although I have no experience driving through the United States’ southern border, I have driven through the Northern border to Canada a number of times. This journey, although not too difficult for American citizens, can take up to a couple of hours as a result of waiting in line for each vehicle to be stopped and questioned upon entering the new country. I remember traveling over the border with my parents when I was younger, and being told that the border is very serious and that it is imperative to not speak unless spoken to. I carry with me the same sentiments about borders for each new country. However, arriving in France and traveling within the European Union, I have found that there are not as severe of sentiments within the Schengen Area. It is important to specify the difference between the European Union and the Schengen Area, due to the differences in security when traveling outside of the Schengen Area. I traveled to Dublin, Ireland one weekend in November and was thrown back into the reality that I normally face with customs at the airport. The agents both arriving in Ireland and returning to France carefully examined my passport and asked detailed questions about my travels. It was at this time that I did receive, finally, another stamp on my passport. However, this was at the cost of a more intense and nerve-racking border control experience. It is clear that there is not one uniform form of security in the European Union despite the efforts of the Schengen Agreement. That information aside, the security within the area, and in France as a result, differs greatly from security protocols in the United States.

Impacts of “hot topics” today in border security:

Today in the United States, as well as France and Europe more broadly, there are many political debates surrounding the topics of borders. In Europe, this conversation centers mostly on the influx of asylum seekers and migrants coming into the region during and after 2015. The “migrant crisis” opened up many conversations about how the European Union and individual states were going to handle adequately housing asylum seekers. For France and other countries, these conversations include considering quotas and safe numbers of people to allow in their country while respecting their values, human rights, and the rights of citizens. In the United States, border security conversations certainly surround problems at the Mexican/United States border. With a crackdown in border security coming from the Trump administration, the area is high in tensions and a huge topic for debate going into the 2020 presidential elections. This subject alone is extremely polarizing for Americans on either side of the debate, one side hoping to stop the flow of illegal immigration and the other seeking to bring asylum to those at the border and moreover help families who are being detained at the border by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The most pressing discussions around border security in the United States and France alike both return to the idea of citizenship and migration. The rights of citizens and immigrants are different in both countries and reflect broader cultural differences and similarities in the constant struggle to define a citizen.