Senior officials in Brussels have warned that populist-fuelled measures against immigration could open a Pandora’s box of new internal boundaries between European Union member states, undermining the free movement of people within the bloc.
A special meeting of interior ministers from across the EU saw calls for a Brussels veto on any moves to reinstate internal border controls by members of the Schengen group of 25 nations.
Concern about the future of the EU’s scheme for passport-free travel has been fuelled by steps in France, Italy and Denmark to crack down on the movement of migrants across their borders.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said on Thursday it “will not accept any attempt to roll back the EU treaty, either for free movement of goods or persons at internal borders”.
The EU tried to do away with such obstacles in its 1995 Schengen agreement for visa-free travel, which the bloc hails as one of its proudest achievements. Yet populist concerns about immigration, heightened by an economic crisis and the upheaval in north Africa, have given rise to new demands to strengthen internal and external borders across Europe.
Tensions have been highest in the EU’s Mediterranean member states, particularly France and Italy, to which most of an estimated 30,000 north African migrants have fled since January. Both countries have demanded the right to introduce temporary internal border controls.
Anti-immigration party holds sway
Denmark’s decision to reinstate customs checks along its borders with Germany and Sweden highlights the influence of the anti-immigration Danish People’s party as the country gears up for a general election, writes Andrew Ward.
The party demanded the measures in negotiations over economic policy with the centre-right Danish government, including pension reforms. The minority coalition relies on informal support from the Danish People’s party to pass legislation.
Denmark is one of several European countries to have had a surge in support for populist parties in recent years, amid concern over immigration and economic insecurity. In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats party won its first seats in parliament last September, while True Finns, the anti-European Union party, saw support increase from 4 per cent to 19 per cent in the Finnish election last month.
The Danish government has faced criticism for working with the DPP, which won nearly 14 per cent of the vote at the last election in 2007, but its support has been crucial to centre-right control of parliament since 2001. Lars Lokke Rasmussen, prime minister and leader of the Liberal party, must call an election by mid-November, with polls showing a tight race with left-leaning opposition parties.
Denmark also reinstated guards and spot checks this week along its borders. Although Denmark is far from north Africa, its populist Danish People’s party pressed for the border crackdown as part of wider negotiations with the coalition government on economic reforms.
Søren Pind, Denmark’s interior minister, told reporters in Brussels that the new controls were purely for customs reasons, intended to prevent drugs, weapons and stolen property from entering the country. “This has been presented as though we are tightening person and passport controls, but this is not the case,” Mr Pind said on the sidelines of a special meeting of European interior ministers to discuss immigration issues. A Danish diplomat said the plan had been modelled on an existing customs regime in neighbouring Sweden and insisted it complied with Schengen rules.
But Commission officials expressed scepticism, particularly over Copenhagen’s intention to reinstall its old border infrastructure. “It all smells of checks on people,” said one. “People are seriously questioning what are the real motives here.”
Germany also criticised the plan. “Freedom of travel is too great an achievement to be sacrificed to domestic political considerations,” Guido Westerwelle, German foreign minister, warned Lene Espersen, his Danish counterpart. “It is far more than just a German-Danish question,” he said, referring to their common border. “It is a question of the freedom of European citizens.”
European diplomats have also been grappling with Greece’s inability to police its border with Turkey. That has stiffened opposition to Romania and Bulgaria, two new EU members plagued by corruption, joining Schengen.
Cecilia Malmström, justice commissioner, said: “We will not weaken Schengen in any way. This is one of the best things in Europe from a citizen’s point of view.”
One of the most contentious questions is whether member states should be required to win approval from Brussels before they can reinstitute internal borders. Under current rules, they can do so unilaterally for up to 30 days. But Ms Malmström has said there should be a commission role in such decisions. in the future. A majority of member states support that view, according to Sandor Pinter, Hungarian interior minister. But some, including Germany, opposed.