Friday, 13 May 2011

A return to walls in Europe

There's something rotten in the state of Denmark, and the rot is spreading fast throughout the European Union. Brussels is in shock today following yesterday's announcement by Denmark that it will reintroduce border controls with neighbouring Sweden and Germany.

The move is a violation of the bloc's Schengen passport-free rules and a worrying sign as EU ministers meet in Brussels today to discuss possible changes to the Schengen rules. The plan would set up the first border control between Sweden and Denmark in more than 50 years.

The move is no doubt intended as a pre-emptive strike ahead of today's negotiations, a message to the EU that if the ban on internal border controls isn't loosened member states are going to ignore it and unilaterally re-impose passport checks. Denmark likely feels confident enough to take this bold unilateral move because of the letter sent to the European Commission by Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi two weeks ago.

The letter demanded that member states be allowed to reimpose internal EU borders in "exceptional circumstances." They believe that the current increase in migrants trying to come to Europe from North Africa qualifies as one of these circumstances. Denmark clearly feels that this letter from two large member states gives them cover to unilaterally impose their own border control. It is the first country ever to reimpose permanent border checks in the history of the Schengen Zone, and there is now fear of a 'chain reaction' that would see the reintroduction of controls at all internal borders.

Under the rules, countries in the Schengen Zone (Switzerland, Norway and Iceland plus all EU countries except Romania, Bulgaria, Malta, Ireland and the UK – see this schematic if you're confused) may not have permanent border checks with other Schengen countries. This means that if you fly from Lisbon to Helsinki, you will not have to show your passport. Similarly, if you drive from France to Italy, your car cannot be stopped at the border. It should be the same as driving from one state to another in the US.

Because of its Schengen membership Denmark has not had a control at its border with Germany since 2001. But the lack of a border control with Sweden goes back even further because of the pre-existing Nordic Passport Union. There hasn't been a control at Denmark's border with Sweden since 1958. Since the construction of the Oresund Bridge connecting the two countries in 2000, the Swedish city of Malmo and the area to its West has increasingly become a suburb of the Danish capital Copenhagen. Thousands of people live in Sweden but work in Copenhagen, making the short daily commute across the bridge. Under Denmark's proposal a passport control would be put on the bridge for the first time. It would be the equivalent of setting up a passport control on the George Washington Bridge which connects New York City and New Jersey.

The move by the centre-right Danish government came in response to pressure from the right-wing populist Danish People's Party. The minority government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen depends on the DPP, and the party has refused to approve Rasmussen's 2020 economic plan until he takes action on the 'immigration problem'. So the re-imposition of borders was offered as conciliation to DPP leader Pia Kjærsgaard, who has been calling for the government to stop "criminals" from Eastern Europe from entering the country via its Schengen borders. The EU countries of Eastern Europe have been members of the Schengen Zone since 2007.

The new border checks will be set up rapidly, with permanent controls at the main German-Danish crossing at Padborg possibly going up 'within months' according to some media reports.

The move is only the latest anti-EU move from centre-right governments in Europe that face pressure and competition from an increasingly popular far right. Far-right parties now sit in the parliaments of 15 EU countries including Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Greece. The far right has enjoyed a particularly strong advance in the Nordic countries, where populist anti-EU, anti-immigrant nationalist rhetoric has found a sympathetic ear.

Today's meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels could yield any number of results. The European Commission has stressed that it would be a productive endeavour to clarify the Schengen rules, as the skirmish at the French-Italian border last month showed there is still a great deal of confusion over when 'emergency temporary border checks can be set up'. It was only during the dispute that we learned that what constitutes an 'emergency' is actually defined by member states, so in theory a member state could permanently reimpose border checks by continually renewing a set of 'emergency temporary' actions, claiming that the emergency had not ended yet.

If the commission gets its way, today's meeting will end with an agreement for a more specifically codified explanation of when countries can reimpose temporary controls, with a definition of 'emergency' to be determined either by the EU executive or by a majority vote of all member states. But France and Italy are reportedly very wary of any solution that would allow an 'emergency' to be determined at EU level, because they could end up with less control over their Schengen internal borders than before.

Yesterday the European Parliament called on the commission to hold firm in defending the European right of free movement, perhaps the most sacred value of the EU. European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso assured them that he would, saying, "free movement is to Europe what foundations are to buildings: remove it and all structure is undermined," adding that the option to reimpose border checks should only be under exceptional circumstances and temporary. The commission has demanded an explanation from Denmark on how the measure would comply with EU law, with a spokesperson saying yesterday the EU executive "will not accept" any challenge to the principle of freedom of movement. The Hungarian EU presidency has also insisted it will defend the Schengen system.

But many members of the European Parliament see any concession by the commission to the likes of France, Italy and Denmark as giving in to irrational populist demands. If we give them this, they asked, where does it stop? They will keep demanding more repatriation of powers until the EU ceases to exist. Socialist group head Martin Schulz said that 25,000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean is not a crisis, and could easily be handled if the migrants were spread out throughout the EU. He said the Danish move was blatant populist pandering and said it is "unacceptable to suspend the basic freedoms of European citizens so quickly."

All eyes will be on the final press conference of today's interior ministers meeting to see whether a walled future awaits Europe. If this is indeed the outcome, it could be the first nail in the coffin for the European project.


Pedro said...

Oh I am all good for having my passport checked at the borders. It's not like I will need to ask special visas to travel around. I have nothing to fear from security controls as I have nothing to hide from them, and if it helps europe become a safer place and where criminals move around less easily.... I'm all for it.

David said...

@Pedro And if you lived in one member state and worked in another, you wouldn't mind going through a passport check every time you went to and from work? I assume you're also ok with adding up to 30 minutes to your journey time when you drive from here to Amsterdam, Paris or Cologne? And having to wait in a long line each time you fly anywhere in the EU?

Pedro said...

Hmmmm yes I am. Seriously I am. 30 minutes are worth feeling safer. I know what's at stake. Things worked fine before they were abused... these days it's becoming abused, so we need to take 2 steps back before we take 1 fwd again.

Jean-Yves said...

Last year the EU Commission pushed for a regulation that would have Member states share the burden of illegal immigrants entering the EU through, say, Italian or Greek borders. Countries with a big illegal immigration problem were of course... in favour, and the proposal made sense in the wider EU context, seen as a whole. That -- very sensible -- proposal was however fought hard by other countries, and now it's in the fridge. Now they say, let's build the walls again, cause there's no alternative. Of course there is. But it requires believing that the EU can and should be a reality, an idea that requires long-term faith & commitment, and it's so much easier to please through populistic measures.

Jean-Yves said...

I grew up next to the French border, I remember how 1993 & the end of borders felt like a great thing, I definitely felt European back then. The end of border controls is THE greatest achievement since 1958. Taking that away is the beginning of the end. I don't care that I'm Walloon or Belgian or Brusselaar or whatever -- please let me be European.

Pedro said...

It will help reduce cross border crime. of course it won't reduce the common petty street crime in Brussels. It will also not allow illegal immigrants to move freely around Europe. It will still be European. But I see your point that it becomes a burden to frequent travellers... :/

Daniel said...

I believe we should fight against any return to border controlls within the Schengen area. I agree that this is one of the greatest achievements in 60 years of European integration. It's a state of mind for Europeanness and openess.

On top ...of this, free movement is one of the pillars of the EU. It's part of the package with free movement of goods, services and capital.

At the same time, security is important too, but there are cleverer way to ensure this than reinstating border controlls.

David said...

@Pedro, it's not just frequent travellers but also workers in border regions. It would also slow down inter-state commerce and shipping. There's also the huge psychological and symbolic effect of re-introducing the borders, as alluded to above. If you start backtracking on free movement, where does it end? It would signal the end of the European project.

Ahmed said...

@Pedro criminals, terorists and other "bad guys" will find their way with or without borders! look what happened to the country where u need to give DNA just to enter inside... but putting back borders in the EU is just ridiclous ....who will feel safer if there is police between france and germany? seriously...biggest nonsence i have heard...

Pedro said...

*sigh* I get all that and I am not a fan of border control even if I am willing to cope with it. I just don't want the open borders to be a way to make it easier for a number of crimes to be commited, be it illegal immigration or drugs around of criminals commiting a crime in a country and crossing border in a hurry (as often happens when cars are stolen in Brussels and find themselves in French territory shortly after).

Chris said...

@Pedro I always get worried when I read someone saying "I've nothing to fear, nothing to hide...", this pretty much gives carte blanche to those in authority positions to do what they like on information gathering...I don't buy illegal things over the internet so I shouldn't worry if the police have access to my VISA transactions etc etc.... where does it end?