Monday, 4 January 2016

Will the Öresund become a symbol of European disintegration?

For the first time in six decades, Sweden has installed controls at its border with Denmark.

This morning, border checks took effect on the Öresund Bridge, which connects with countries of Sweden and Denmark. 30,000 people use this bridge to commute between the cities of Copenhagen and Malmo each day. For comparison, imagine New York and New Jersey setting up ID checks on the George Washington Bridge

The news might not seem particularly remarkable to British or American readers. After all, they have to go through a passport control to get to any other country, so why shouldn't Swedes or Danes? 

The difference is that these two countries haven't had passport controls between them since 1952, when the Nordic Passport Union was established. This union was eventually subsumed into the wider Schengen passport-free zone in 1995. And today, the dismantling of free movement on the Öresund bridge is only one part of a wider disintegration in the EU. 

Six countries have now set up controls at internal EU borders, in violation of the Schengen agreement. Denmark has blocked its border with Germany, and France has blocked its borders with everywhere.

The legality of all of this is murky, because of unclear language in the Schengen Agreement. All EU member states (except the UK and Ireland, which opted out) are forbidden from setting up systematic border checks with other EU countries. But an exception was written into the law, allowing member states to introduce border checks for "public policy or national security reasons".

These temporary checks are supposed to be limited to two months. But it does not appear that any of these countries are going to stop these checks (by my account the two-month limit will be reached by France next week). The big question now is whether the European Commission will step in and fine these countries for imposing the border checks.

All of this may seem rather technical, but it goes to the heart of the purpose of the European Union. As Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, noted last year: if Schengen falls, the euro falls. If the euro falls, Europe falls. The blockage on the Öresund Bridge is now the most visible symbol of the European project's disintegration.

Imagine being a commuter who lives in Malmo but works in Copenhagen. Your normal 40-minute commute will now be at least twice as long, because there are no more direct trains between the two cities. Factor in the time for the passport checks and your commute has probably increased to two hours. People will stop working across borders. Commerce will be slowed.

As someone who works across EU borders, specifically between Germany and Belgium, I know that if a passport control were set up between these two countries it would make my job much more difficult. And I only do my commute every two weeks.

And yet the people of Europe don't seem to care about these border closures. Many don't seem to care about a collapse in the euro either. The apathy of this continent will be its undoing. If no one stands up to defend these decades-old mechanisms of cooperation, Europe could very quickly find itself divided and hobbled. 

The comforts that people have grown used to will become but a memory, as people will remember the days of free travel across the Öresund.

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