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France train attack: Belgium calls for review of Schengen visa-free travel zone

Call to reinstate identity and luggage checks on rail journeys within Europe, in major rethink of Schengen free-travel zone

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Security forces detaining the suspect of the shooting on a Thays train at Arras train station in Arras, northern France Photo: EPA

Europe’s passport-free travel zone that allows people to move around the continent without checks must be reviewed in light of the foiled terrorist attack on a French train, the Prime Minister of Belgium has said.

Charles Michel said Europe must consider reinstating identity and luggage inspections on international train routes in light of Friday’s botched attack, 30 years after border controls were scrapped in mainland Europe.

He called for a meeting of European transport and interior ministers to review the rules.

Such a move would amount to a revision of a core pillar of the EU project – namely, that citizens can move between member states without needing to show a passport or identity papers.

It came as Britain’s former counter terrorism “tsar” called for an urgent review of security on international rail services in Europe, describing Friday’s shootings as a “warning to us all”.

The Schengen system is already under significant political strain from an influx of migrants arriving in Italy and Greece and attempting to move north.

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Migrants have been confronted by riot police on the French-Italian border, and last week Germany warned that Schengen “cannot exist” unless EU member states take their fair share of asylum seekers.

Ayoub El-KhazzaniAyoub El-Khazzani, the suspected gunman  Photo: AFP

The intervention from Mr Michel is noteworthy as he is a passionate defender of the principle of free movement within Europe. He recently warned David Cameron he would resist any attempt by Britain to “dismantle” the EU under his reform agenda.

“The Schengen Agreement is important for our economy and our citizens, but we are now faced with new threats in Europe and so we’ll maybe have to move towards new rules in identity and baggage checks,” Mr Michel said.

“It is certainly a boon to economic development and freedom of movement for those who have good intentions, but this freedom is also used in order to harm. The goal is not to suppress freedoms, but to deal with a threat.”

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It marks a challenge for Jean Claude-Juncker, who in June celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of the free travel zone. The European Commission then declared Schengen to be one of its greatest achievements and “irreversible”.

Britain is not a member of the Schengen zone, and carries out passport checks and luggage screenings at the Eurostar, but any change in the rules would impact on hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers and business travellers every year.

A major revision of Europe’s travel rules may require treaty change, and could make Mr Cameron’s demand to change the rules around welfare for migrants appear mild by comparison.

Europe has faced attacks on its railway network before – notably the Madrid station bombings in 2004 which killed 191.

The Italian railway network was hit by a series of deadly bombings by the far Right and the mafia in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the attempted attack on a train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels on Friday marked a departure as it is the first time terrorists have attempted to strike an international rail service as it crossed borders.

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Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, Britain’s former independent reviewer of terrorism laws, said: “This event has to be a warning to us all.

“There is barely any security on high-speed rail on the continent.

“Travellers are entitled to expect them to be policed, at least to the standard of domestic services in Britain where British Transport Police are very focussed on counter-terrorism.

“My view is that an immediate review is required of security on trains crossing international borders. It should take advice from, among others, British Transport Police.”

In the wake of Friday’s episode, Belgium said it would increase baggage checks and patrols on high-speed trains.

And France said its state-run rail firm, the SNCF, would introduce an emergency hotline to report “abnormal situations”.

Guillaume Pepy, head of SNCF, the French state-owned rail operator which has a controlling stake in Thalys, said it was unrealistic to extend airport-style security to railway stations.

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This entry was posted on August 23, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , .

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