As a UK citizen, I am granted 90 consecutive days within the European ‘Schengen Zone.’
Despite the temerity of government warnings and conviction of accredited media, it seems that this policy goes largely unenforced.
I was stamped into Schengen at Rome, June 2021, and out at Athens, June 2022 – almost a year to the day after my arrival. During the time I was considered illegal, I traveled without hitch from the iron braced wharves of the Baltic to the fig lined promenades of the rivieras, often showing my passport to officials. It was only while filling my boat with diesel in Ermoupoli that I realised a pressing need to build a winter firewood store for my Kerosene heated home in Scotland. Finally, I would have to re-negotiate the Schengen border.
Presumably, the threatened consequences of my situation could only apply on re-entry to Schengen. No airport, discovering I had overstayed, was likely to put themselves to the expense and inconvenience of retrieving my checked luggage and debarring me from an outbound flight and nobody can be expected to rustle up a 10,000€ fine as they wait for their gate to be called.
Nevertheless, I did consider a work-around for my situation. Theoretically, I could have sailed out of Schengen to Turkey aboard my own boat and flown back home from Istanbul, avoiding Schengen’s exit customs. Upon my next arrival to Schengen, there would be no record of the date of my previous departure, making it impossible to determine whether I had overstayed.
As much from sloth as from curiosity, however, I opted simply to tell the truth and see what happened.
I wintered the boat at Paros, headed back to Athens, checked in my baggage and went through the scanners. At the passport control gate, the policewoman ran my passport through a scanner twice and scowled at her computer screen. Asking me how long I had been in Schengen, I replied honestly and made up a story that, owing to a COVID lockdown, Italy had passed a law granting foreign sailors as long as we needed to stay on our boats in that jurisdiction (if there is such a law it couldn’t have applied to me as I had also entered Italy illegally from France). I had landed in Kefalonia 89 days previously, so I was leaving Greece today in compliance with Greek law. No – I had no papers from Italy explaining my waiver. She wasn’t impressed.
‘You’re going upstairs to the Taxiarchos.’
The Taxiarchos belonged more to the pages of a Chekhov novel than an airport customs office. Buckled, beretted and Beretta’d, he gazed down with fathomless kleostalgia as a column of German holiday makers disembarked a Wizz Air flight in flip-flops. Turning at last from the venetian blinds, he gesticulated at his large desk. We sat under an ikon of Saint Constantine where, degraded by modernity, he neither lit a pipe nor polished a monocle. Rifling the pages of my passport, he paused for a long time over the Chinese, Russian and Cuban visas as two large propellor engines crescendoed on the blazing concrete apron outside.
‘Do you know Owen Murphy?’ I ventured, having discovered this to be a secret handshake among educated officials across the entire continent.
‘Of course,’ he responded offhandedly.
Alas – I don’t know what the correct response is once allegiance is thus signalled. Maybe someone can enlighten us in the comments. Is Owen Murphy a person or a masonic code for something?
Leaning back in his chair, he fixed me across the dishevelled sea of papers.
‘You are the captain of a boat, is that correct?’
‘En-route to recapture Constantinople,’ I clarified.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘this is serious. I’m obliged to report you to the relevant European authorities, but…’ he trailed off with a dismissive gesture of the hand which still held my passport between its fingers.
Unbeknown to both of us, at that very moment, the European Court of Human Rights court in Strasbourg were interceding to prevent the UK government from deporting seven of the half-a-million migrants that Great Britain receives a year. The failure of UKGov’s rather silly PR stunt emphasises the wisdom of the Taxiarchos’ final verdict. A nation of 1000 inhabited islands abutting the Islamic world, Greece can either join the failure to prosecute European border policy, or enjoy a last scornful chuckle at the self-importance of governments which still think that they can.
Handing back my papers with the exit stamp required, he bade me fair winds and following seas.
Western borders are now a legal product sold by governments to accredited media so that buzzwords like ‘deport’ still have currency in public discourse. Schengen has little power or say over who can travel in to its jurisdiction, let alone to levy £10,000 fines on people heading back out.
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