Jurmala’s ghosts and the Haunted Houses of Schengen

imagesHalloween. The time when the undead come to town. And when boarded up haunted houses start making eerie sounds and come alive. This year, however, not all of them seem that decrepit and spirited. Some in fact remain relatively quiet. These are the haunted houses of Schengen. Haunted, yet  alluring. Indeed, they can be quite luxurious.  They also do not appear in creepy places (So no Castles in Transylvania – not yet. at least, for Romania is still waiting to join Schengen…). On the contrary, they rise along swanky neighborhoods or exclusive beach resorts. Who lives there? Hmmm, good question. If we had an answer, these houses would not be haunted… A more pertinent question is: why would anybody in their sane mind be so foolish as to own such as a ghostly abode?  Wait a minute: it’s Schengen, stupid! Yes, what makes these architectural ghosts so attractive is that they happen to be in the most sought-after place on earth, namely Europe (Yes, some find the decadent Old Continent still attractive!). And if you are not a European citizen and require a visa to enter Eurodreamland, then why not buy your way into paradise by claiming a fictitious residence there? And here enters Jurmala, the Latvian resort city by the Baltic Sea. In 2010, the Latvian government introduced a program that allows foreign citizens to acquire residency in the country if they are willing to invest at least 71,000 euros. Minimum requirement to maintain residency: have a local address (an apartment in Jurmala sounds good!) and be there one day per year (yeah, the day the haunted houses of Schengen come alive!). And who cares about the sandy beaches (The Baltic sea is not the Caribbean after all). With a local residency in your pocket, the doors of Europe are open to you! No more hassle at EU embassies! No more dealing with these callous and ungrateful European officials! To good to be true. Indeed, in three years, around 7,000 ‘zombies’, mostly well-healed Russians, Chinese and Kazakhs, have taken advantage of this unique opportunity. But like everything else, good things are bound to come to an end. Latvia is now feeling a bit of pressure from its EU partners (should we blame them?) to close this loophole. And they might have another reason to do so. Purportedly, the rationale for this program is to encourage money flows into the country. Yet this money is often laundered and sent back to the ghost’s (ehmm, resident’s) country of origin. So much for Latvia’s gains! None should that surprised then if this year’s Halloween might seal the program’s fate: R.I.P the Haunted Houses of Schengen!

The place to be: Schengen and Europe’s new grand tour

Schengen monumentThe way  ‘Schengen’ has captured the popular imagination around the world does not finish surprising me.   After all, not that long ago the term only referred to a sleepy little village along the river Moselle, known for its wine, and not  much else. And then came the omonimous (and  infamous) treaty that led the way to the creation of a border free Europe. This document, it should be noted, was signed on a cruise ship (the Princesse Marie Astrid), in itself quite an odd feat: how many treaties have been signed on water, and on the move? A rocking treaty indeed! From then, everything was downhill (or downstream, I should say).  Almost thirty years on, Schengen is not just still alive and kicking and an established element in Europe’s political landscape. It has also become part of the collective imaginary among European citizens (NB: that does not mean that everybody is happy with it. On the contrary, there has always been opposition to it, and, of late, this opposition has been mounting. Yet, even for its enemies, Schengen is a real and powerful presence to be reckoned  with. ) Interestingly, this apparently inexorable process of Schengen mythicization is spreading beyond Europe as well. Elsewhere in this blog. I have described this phenomenon, especially through some of its most unexpected expressions in popular culture (see, for instance, my musings on the recently opened Schengen restaurant in Petersburg). I thought I had seen it all. Instead, recently I came across something that pushes the boundaries of the Schengen mythical saga a step further. What I am referring to here is a video, posted  over the summer by a Taiwanese TV channel. The 5 minute clip is a colorful, postcard-like presentation of the town of Schengen as a tourist attraction for a Taiwanese audience. Now, it is true that East Asian international tourism has expanded exponentially in recent years, especially to Europe, and that this new wave of tourists have become more demanding (the classic tour of European capitals does not do it anymore…). Still, visiting a small village in the middle of nowhere?  Why  on earth? Well, as it happens, the main reason to visit is that…. it is the birthplace of the Schengen regime! Of course!  After all, what’s most exciting than visiting the monument that commemorates the agreement, located just outside the town, along the river Moselle (see pic) on a sunny (though the sun is not always guaranteed) European summer day?  Together with the Colosseum, the Tour Eiffel, Buckingham Palace, Schengen is the place to be. Or, at least, this what the TV is telling you. See it to believe it, in your next grand European tour!

What’s on the menu? Schengen as geo-culinary topos

A truly European flavour...

A truly European flavour…

Since last May, Russia has its own ‘Schengen’. It’s a place where you can go for pleasure or business. It’s a restaurant in Saint Petersburg. The restaurant is located not far from the Finnish Consulate, where the owner goes to get “the cherished Schengen visa.” Hence the name. But there is more to it than pure happenstance. The reference to ‘Schengen’ is meant to evoke the cosmopolitan aura that Europe’s area of free movement is supposed to project, together with other related ‘progressive’ notions such as open-mindedness, sophistication, and freedom. This spin is not that surprising. After all, the purpose of any act of ‘branding’ is to sell a product to a customer, and thus the product should be associated with something positive. In the eyes of the management, ‘Schengen’ is supposed to do the trick.

And the trick seems to work. According to one reviewer, Schengen is “a new location for smart people.”. In terms of menu, another reviewer notices how “at first (it) seemed concise to the point of being a bit parsimonious” (these stingy Europeans!), although the overall experience is one of “visa-free satisfaction”. Schengen’s design as well is quintessential European. It has in fact a “slightly Germanic feel” but it “bring(s) together influences from different parts of Europe into an effortlessly harmonious whole”. (Well, “slightly Germanic feel” might be a bit of understatement when we look at Europe today; in turn, the Old Continent is all but “effortless” and “harmonious” these days, but you get the picture…)

From its clientele to its look, Schengen (the restaurant) thus seems to uncannily represent a microcosm of Europe’s border free area, or at least what European policy-makers would like to present outside the region. In this sense, Schengen (the restaurant) is not unique. There are other examples of businesses with topographical names reminiscent of a location that is different from the one where that business actually lies. It is arguably one of the most common practices in the hospitality industry. After all, almost all respectable cities around the world have a ‘London’ or ‘Paris’ restaurant, even if these establishments are located neither in England nor in France. The Schengen restaurant is also not the only bearing a name of topographical entity that does not actually exist. (We should keep in mind that formally ‘Schengenland’ is not a political entity that we can find on a map; in EU legal documents, the reference is still to the territory of member states). Cities are replete with hotels bearing the names of fictional locations, including mythical ones (for example, ‘Paradise’, ‘El Dorado’).

What distinguishes the case of the Schengen restaurant is that it refers to both a real and a fictional entity. The restaurant’s name in fact refers to something that simultaneously does and does not exist. In this context ‘Schengen’ is something real because, according to those who chose this name, its referent object is an existing political entity with defined ‘commonsensical’ features; however, it is also  fictional, because this political entity does not formally exist, or at least it does not necessarily exist in the way the management of the restaurant thinks it does. Ready to go to Schengen? Check its menu first, there might be surprises…

Saying ‘non’ to Schengen: or how a visa refusal can challenge the system

Image

A Non-Schengen ticket…

“Non, merci”. These simple words have caused a stir, embarrassing France and Europe as a whole in the process. What I am referring to is the symbolic gesture that a young Senegalese woman, Bousso Dramé, performed last week after the French consulate in Dakar had granted her a visa to travel to Europe. She really wanted to go to Paris. And she well deserved it (the trip was the prize for winning a French writing contest). Yet, she declined. We often hear stories about visa applicants, especially in developing countries, being turned down by callous European officials. Not this time. Drame turned them down. And she did not do it silently. She wanted to let the consulate officials know why she did it  – because of the way she was (mis)treated during the application process. She also wanted everybody else (in Africa and beyond) to know. And she wanted to make a statement about the humiliation that many people like her have to endure in order to get to Europe. That is why she put all her bitterness in writing, in a composed yet powerful j’accuse against a ‘system’ that she feels is profoundly unjust, which pretends to be objective but whose main raison d’être seems to be that of keeping unwanted people out of Europe.

Drame’s gesture has made me think about other symbolic performances that target Europe’s visa system, in this case using art as their main ‘weapon’. What I have in mind is what Milevska  calls ‘Non Schengen Art’[1]. The common theme addressed by non–Schengen artists is the impact of the Schengen border regime on the everyday life of Eastern European citizens (those holding passports of countries that are not yet Schengen members). In order to present their work in Western Europe, these artists (themselves citizens of ‘Non Schengen’ countries) need to obtain a visa. To challenge what they perceive as a clamp down on their freedom of expression, they conjure up performances, objects, installations, and video or photography projects that are clandestine attempts for finding a way to trick the political system and bureaucratic procedures. These performances are often based on illegal tactics that mirror the creative ways in which would-migrants try to sneak across Europe’s external borders, such as faking passports, bribing officials, avoiding surveillance cameras, overstaying visas, white weddings, etc. Their criticism of the Schengen regime, rather than overt and outspoken, is evoked by their actions. They are not just representing an illegal migrant in their art; they are performing it. Thanks to these performances, art becomes part of everyday life. But the artists’ objective is not to reify the ‘everydayness’ that Schengen represents, but to disrupt it from within.

The Serbian author Tanja Ostojić, for instance, in her performance Crossing Borders, realized in 2000, the author illegally crossed the border between Slovenia and Austria. When she crossed the border, Slovenia was still a non Schengen country, and its borders with the EU were heavily fortified. According to Ostojić, the journey was possible only because of the help she received from her Austrian friends who accompanied her in the treacherous trek across the Slovenian-Austrian border. The final objective of the work of Ostojić and other members of the Non Schengen Art movement is to unveil Schengen’s exclusionary underpinnings. Their artistic performances thus engage with ‘the system’, if only as a means to debunk it from within. This is precisely what Drame’s ‘spectacular’ gesture seems to be doing. The power of  a ‘non’…


[1]  Milevska, Suzana, “Non-Schengen art: the phantasm of belonging”, paper presented at the UCL school of Slavonic and East European studies 7th annual international postgraduate conference, Inclusion Exclusion, University College London 16-18th February 2006

Putin and the Eurasian Schengen…

A post soviet Schengen? Putin thinks it is a good idea. Whether Russia’s neighbours agree is to be seen…

http://rt.com/politics/promotes-schengen-first-article-991/

Sarah Wolff

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