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…

Nobel vs. Schengen: reflections on the EU, the peace award ceremony… and John Terry

Awarding the most coveted peace prize to the European Union was no doubt a well-staged coup de théâtre. Not surprisingly, the decision has infuriated the (ever growing) battalion of Euro über-skeptics, who have cried foul. Crowning a freshly minted US president with little to show for as peace-maker (as the Nobel committee did in 2009), baffling as it might sound, can be written off as naive wishful thinking . But the EU? The new leviathan that is currently taking the continent down the drain? The Devil impersonated?  Come on!  The Nobel committee, however, has managed to achieve another, and arguably more difficult, feat, that is to embarrass the pro-EU crowd, especially those in the halls of power who still (claim to) support the European project. They might not dare to say it openly – after all, this prize is a recognition of the positive impact that the Union has had on putting the continent’s history of conflict and destruction behind. In normal circumstances, these kinds of awards are the best you might wish for. But these are not normal circumstances. It is an understatement to say that the EU has gone through better days. A prize now? Awkward…  Indeed, EU leaders might feel the same type of unease that surrounded (then) English football captain John Terry, who in 2009 won a prize as ‘dad of the year[i],  although he was cheating on his wife…[ii]. (In fairness, revelations about the footballer’s extra-curricular activities came ex post facto, unlike the EU case, where the award committee was well aware of the recipient’s current record…).  Intriguing as it might be, this story does not end with the controversial decision taken back in October in Oslo.  Even around the time of the actual award ceremony (known as ‘Nobel days’), the spectacle continues – now taking on the features of the comedie de l’absurd.  As a precautionary measure, Norway – the host country – has decided to reinstate controls at its frontiers to prevent possible troublemakers to ruin the event.  The irony is not lost in this move. Norway, a non EU member who is a member of Schengen – Europe’s border free regime – temporarily has suspended EU rules regarding freedom of movement to celebrate  the Union’s achievements, including – ehm – cross continent freedom of movement. So, while frontier controls are supposedly not an effective tool against cross border criminal activities – as the EU mantra goes –  they are indispensable to protect EU leaders attending a ceremony in which they hail themselves as beacons of freedom. Worth repeating: awkward!

Contradictions are an integral part of politics. After all, politics is the art of the possible,  of rendering the absurd normal and the unacceptable tolerable. Which makes me wonder: might be John Terry heading to Oslo next year (and not for a football game)?

The Schengen visa…and jesus

Getting a Schengen visa on time? It is often beyond the control of us mortals. So maybe somebody up there can help….

http://www.prayerrequest.com/topic/124176-let-me-get-a-schengen-visa-this-week-i-ask-in-christ-jesus-name-amen/

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