PARIS — If Europe’s system of passport-free travel was not under enough pressure after a summer of chaotic migration, then last week’s attacks in Paris have fortified doubts over how much longer that freedom of movement — one of the most cherished accomplishments of the European Union — can survive.
The Nov. 13 massacres in Paris were carried out almost entirely by European passport holders who slipped in and out of Syria without being identified or checked. In addition, the discovery of a Syrian passport apparently held by one of the Paris assailants has renewed fears that terrorists have infiltrated the migrant wave.
With the focus now on bolstering security, European Union interior and justice ministers met in an emergency session on Friday and vowed to complete French proposals for tighter controls by the end of the year.
Given the double chaos of migratory flows and cross-border terrorists, many countries — including France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Sweden — have already established temporary border controls.
The concern is that they will make those temporary controls, which are allowed under Schengen, effectively permanent, destroying the agreement.
On Thursday night, adding to the confusion, most nations along Europe’s migrant corridor abruptly shut their borders to those not coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, leaving thousands stranded at Balkan border crossings.
Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said on Thursday: “If Europe doesn’t shoulder its responsibilities, then it’s the whole Schengen system that’s put into question.”
The open-border arrangement, established 20 years ago, covers 22 European Union countries and four other nations. But the system can work only if its external borders are policed and protected, and it is obvious to all that Europe has failed to do so.
Arnaud Danjean, a member of the European Parliament and a former security official and diplomat from France, put it bluntly: “If by the end of the year necessary measures to reinforce external border controls and to check passports of Schengen citizens are not implemented, I think Schengen is dead.”
Otherwise, he said, “many countries will come back in January and say we need another system, and until we have one, we will adopt permanent border controls.”
French proposals for tighter controls were first made after Islamist radicals attacked the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January.
CreditRobert Atanasovski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But they were stalled by inaction and by concerns over data privacy in the European Parliament, raised particularly by Germany and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe, which have been largely untouched by terrorism.
On Friday, however, the ministers gave their backing to measures demanded by France this week that included tightening external borders by extending checks to more people who can usually enter, and move freely within, the Schengen area.
Strengthening controls at external borders is “indispensable for the protection of European citizens,” Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, said at a news conference.
Overhauling the Schengen rules would mean “systematic and obligatory checks to be carried out at all our external borders and on all people entering the Schengen area, including those who benefit from the freedom of movement,” he said.
Mr. Cazeneuve has expressed fury that France found out that the ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had slipped undetected back into Europe only from intelligence provided by a non-European country, believed to be Morocco.
Under the proposals, if a Schengen passport holder travels to a third country, whether Turkey, Syria or the United States, upon re-entering the Schengen area the passport should not just be examined but checked against criminal and security databases.
The ministers also agreed to establish a single European gun registration file. Mr. Danjean said he hoped that the gun control laws could be unified eventually in the European Union, pointing out that Belgian laws are much less restrictive than French ones.
While the difficulties with Schengen are largely technical and administrative, the politics around the subject have become nasty, feeding Europe’s far-right parties, especially France’s National Front and Sweden’s Democrats.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, said that “the absence of national borders is criminal madness.” Striking a familiar but trenchant theme, she said: “The French elites have given themselves over to this surreal myth of a country without borders. Open your eyes, now!”
Euroskeptics and the far right, “those trying to benefit from the situation, are trying to redefine the entire Schengen debate in a way that makes Schengen look like the culprit here,” said Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based research institution.
And the Islamic State “used a very vulnerable time for their attacks, knowing full well that the refugee crisis is like a force multiplier of their attacks,” Mr. Techau added. However unfair, he said, “it’s very hard to separate them now.”
“The victim is Europe,” said Alain Frachon, a columnist for Le Monde. The Paris attacks coming alongside the migrant crisis “are one more bullet in the corpse of Schengen,” he said.
“But of course Schengen was never really applied,” he said. “Freedom of internal travel required European border controls,” under an agency called Frontex, “but no one wanted to put any money into Frontex.”
In general, Mr. Frachon said, “the first reflex of any police, border and customs agency is to keep national control.”
To defend Europe’s external borders efficiently, he said, one needs a supranational, European agency that works. “But that is exactly the opposite of what public opinion is asking for now, and it’s a terrible contradiction,” he added.
For the European Union, this is a defining moment, said François d’Alançon, an analyst at the newspaper La Croix. “This is not only about Islamic State, but about the refugee crisis, the euro, freedom of movement and the integration of Muslims all over Europe,” he said.
“We have all these people claiming that we should shut the national borders,” he said, “but we know that all the answers are really European ones. For intelligence sharing, for refugees, you need more Europe, with unified asylum policies and security policies.”
For many people, Mr. D’Alançon said, “we all thought the European idea, the European project was the only ideal left.” But now, he said, “it’s all gone, it’s just a big fog.”