In the idle town of Schengen.
Words by Ben Bird & photos by Ben Bird
One word kept on coming up with regularity: Schengen.
Whether it was raised in an effort to convince citizens to cast a vote, to portray people moving across borders they were not welcome to cross – to find work, or to escape pain -, this name was used to cite, blame, or champion, the predicament Europe has found itself in recently.
For the most part, we see the word usually on passports, in tedious queues at nebulous, sterile airports’ customs desk (“please stand behind the line and wait until you are called to the booth”), when one is allowed to cross out of this limbo world into one with a name and flag.
This name comes from one place in the heart of western Europe. Schengen is a small town located in the south-east of Luxembourg. It was on a boat harboured on the Moselle river that the 1985 Schengen agreement (later the Schengen convention) was signed. This became a cornerstone of the then European Economic Community and underpins the European Union’s current political and economic foundation.
The aim of the Agreement was the abolition of border controls between most countries in the Union, promoting free movement of people and, no doubt, helping labour market and economies of member states.
This free movement has been brought into question, last year when it was even suspended briefly by some nations such as Sweden, Denmark and France.
Schengen was an idle location for the signing; the village is at the point where Germany, France, and Luxembourg borders converge – in the Moselle, mid-river on an island. However, its roots lie deeper still.
The area – rich in coal and steel – was of huge significance to the EU’s founding ideology, and its predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community.
Saarland, the German federal state just yards across the river, could be seen as a microcosm of 20th century Europe, having been an independent state, controlled by France and a part of Germany, most recently since the late 1950’s.
Having seen so many images of desperate refugees, landscapes torn with masses moving through them, and politicians and local officials attempting to control the situation in the face of the media, I felt a dichotomy. Having both over-saturation of these shocking images and a lack of debate over Schengen as an idea or, more importantly, a place at the heart of an idea of freedom. One that many people now take for granted.
At the heart of the European dream, there are signs the status quo is shifting. What was certain and normal for a generation is now being challenged, not just in Britain but the whole of or Europe.
It was as much an unknown to me as it is to others, the picturesque but sleepy area, rich in vineyards, was on the surface unremarkable at first sight. The look of houses, styles and tastes transpire a vision of ‘Europeanness’ that is comforting in its familiarity to other parts of the Union. This returning familiarity and comfort soon gave way to a creeping awareness and a shift in thought.
Monuments and sights now took on an added meaning in the back of my mind. Graffiti and signs at railway stations directing refugees stood out. Talking to strangers with their curiosity and questions about Brexit when an accent was heard. Nagging worries about the future of travel surfaced when crossing in and out of different countries, sometimes multiple times a day.
In light of this, images could take on new or secondary meanings: flag fluttering in the wind, signs of a strong country, or one on the brink; smoke drifting free of marks in the earth or, the lingering sign of violence hanging in the air; the path of freedom and hope opening or the ghosts a nation’s divided past rising, growing and spreading.
Run to the water’s edge was made around this symbolic location of the European Union’s political project – a project that is now seemingly at a crossroad. The spectre of failure and chaos could now lurk over the EU. Both the UK and Europe are at the edge of an unknown future that leaves both in the dark, searching for any sense or stability.