Thursday, 7 July 2011

Poland fires warning shot over Denmark's 'nationalist' moves

Poland is not usually known as a very pro-EU country. In fact, it has gotten the reputation as the most Eurosceptic of the new member states. But yesterday Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk lambasted recent moves by Denmark, France and Italy to undermine the European project. He signalled he intends to halt the current slide, led by those Western countries, toward reintroducing border controls at internal EU borders.

Tusk was speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to mark the start of Poland's presidency of the EU, which will last the next six months. "The answer to the crisis is more Europe," he said, not less. He indicated that he will fight against efforts to further erode EU principles, and suggested he was unhappy with the deal reached among member states last month to allow temporary internal border patrols to deal with increased immigration.
"I am against any barriers to internal free movement under the pretext of dealing with migration problems. What Denmark is doing is a concern for anybody who thinks that free movement is going to be restricted even further," he told the parliament. "Europe, with its institutions, its budget and its objectives, is not the source of this crisis. And following those who say the opposite would be a fatal mistake. Undoing the European construction at this time and turning to nationalism as an answer to the crisis would be a very big mistake."
It was a fairly unusual move for the incoming presidency to take such a political stance against what other member states are doing, because the presidency is supposed to be a neutral negotiator in the council. But Poland has always marched to the beat of its own drummer when it comes to the EU.

 As the largest Eastern European member state, Poland has taken on the roll of 'defender of the interests of the new member states', often taking unpopular stances that smaller Eastern states agree with privately but don't feel secure enough to say publicly. Their unorthodox way of doing things has often been interpreted by Western European states as being anti-European. But in an ironic twist, it is now Poland lecturing the Western states about their lack of European values.

Of course, the Polish government today is a far cry from what it was five years ago under the reign of the right-wing Kaczynski twins. Though Poland still often takes obstructionist or unorthodox positions, Prime Minister Tusk is an avowed pro-European. Poland and the other Eastern European states worked hard to join the Schengen Zone in 2007, and doing so has brought them myriad advantages. It is perhaps the Eastern European states who are the most concerned about the Schengen agreement falling apart. And Tusk likely sees it as his duty to protect it.

So what will this mean practically over the coming months? I would guess that if and when the subject of border controls comes up again in the council, the issue is going to get a lot more scrutiny under the Polish presidency than it did last month under the Hungarian presidency. Poland could also put the issue of Denmark re-imposing its border checks with Germany and Sweden on the agenda for public debate, and member states could deliver a public castigation to the Danes.

This could convince the Danish government to abandon the move, which was likely done to appease the increasingly powerful far right Danish People's Party, who now form part of the government. Denmark's actions are likely illegal under the Schengen treaty and the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, has already warned the government that this is likely to be the case.

If Poland can convince member states to show solidarity with the commission rather than with Denmark, it would go a long way in warning other states not to try going down the same route. After all, the commission can complain till they're blue in the face, but if member states don't stand up for Schengen it will likely go the way of the dodo.


Simon said...

The important thing to remember here is that the Danish border checks are customs checks and not police / immigration checks. Already as a result of them, drugs and illegal weapons have been seized on the German and Swedish borders. I've been randomly stopped on the German-Austrian border a few times and the German-Dutch border for random police and customs checks. So it's a bit hypocritical of other EU states to criticise Denmark so angrily!

David said...

Simon, all of these countries are in the same customs zone in addition to being in the Schengen zone, there are no customs levies for goods travelling between Germany and Denmark and Sweden. There is no more reason to set up a customs check at the Danish-Swedish border than there would be to set up a check between Zeeland and Funen in Denmark. They could have found those weapons and drugs by doing random checks anywhere within Denmark, so why do it on the one spot where they are not allowed to happen? To satisfy the Danish far right, that's why.

Simon said...

To be honest random checks are already carried out by most EU states on the borders and on almost every train between Germany and Denmark (by German police that is!). Of course you can't levy duty on goods within the EU but those rules only apply to importing items for personal use... So for example if you go from the UK to France and come back with a van stuffed full of cigarettes, which is obviously not for personal use and to be sold on on the black market, then it is perfectly legal to stop and fine the driver and/or confiscate the goods...

Rohan said...

Umm, we have them already, I got stopped going from France to Italy by car 2 months ago by customs looking for drugs

David said...

@Simon But that only applies to cigarettes and alcohol! Do you really think that undertaxed cigarettes and alcohol is such a huge problem for Denmark right now that they should spend so much money and violate EU law in order to tackle it? The schengen agreement clearly states that no systematic checks can be carried out at internal borders, including customs checks.

@Rohan and Simon: the Commission is currently consulting on Schengen violations by member states. If you witnessed a violation of your Schengen rights, I would urge you to submit a response to the consultation!