Friday, 13 May 2011
A return to walls in Europe
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.
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 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.
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.
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.