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Interview with Luxembourg Foreign Minister: Franco-German Border Plan 'Stinks to High Heaven'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn attacks a Franco-German plan to allow Schengen-zone countries to temporarily re-introduce border controls. The move is a populist ploy by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to secure his re-election, says Asselborn.

Germany and France last week demanded that the Schengen border-free travel regime be weakened. Zoom

Germany and France last week demanded that the Schengen border-free travel regime be weakened.

SPIEGEL: The German interior minister and his French counterpart want to reintroduce national border controls in some cases. Does their proposal have a chance of getting accepted in Europe?

Asselborn: I hope not. The whole world envies us for our open-border arrangement that was launched with the agreement that got its start in the Luxembourg village of Schengen. For the citizens of Europe it is the biggest achievement in the history of the European Union. It would be dramatic, for the economy too, if big countries like Germany or France could unilaterally close their borders and thereby devalue the Schengen agreement.

SPIEGEL: Greece can't secure its borders on ist own. Isn't the concern voiced by Berlin and Paris justified?

Asselborn: It is true that 90 percent of refugees come in via Greece. But the EU is a club of solidarity. That is why we must help the Greeks come to grips with the border problem instead of relying on national solutions.

SPIEGEL: In their letter to the Danish presidency of the EU, the two interior ministers only refer to temporary border controls as a last resort. Isn't the uproar exaggerated?

Asselborn: Border controls don't help come to grips with the refugee problem. When France made such a proposal last year, Germany was opposed to it. Now it is supporting this populism. The timing of the debatestinks to high heaven.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Asselborn: It's no accident that this letter was made public at the height of the French presidential election campaign. The letter appeals to far-right ideology. It serves the goal of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to woo votes from the far-right Front National.

SPIEGEL: First the euro goes into crisis, then the open-border agreement is called into question. Is the EU at risk of breaking apart?

Asselborn: The EU is very resilient. But I am watching with concern how populist centrifugal forces are becoming stronger in Europe. It was also a conservative government that temporarily reintroduced border controls in Denmark last year. They weren't abolished until the Danish Social Democrats won the election. If François Hollande wins the election, he will quickly put a stop to the Schengen debate.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schult


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The Schengen Agreement
In 1985, the Schengen Agreement paved the way for taking down barriers at border controls between Germany, France and the three Benelux countries -- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. At the same time, it obligated these countries to better protect their external borders.

Signed near the town of Schengen in Luxembourg, it would take until 1995 for the treaty to bring down border gates for good.

Today 25 countries have signed on to the agreement. Even non-European Union members Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are within the Schengen Area. Bulgaria and Romania would also like to join, but have so far failed to meet the requirements. Schengen membership forbids systematic border controls. While random checks are allowed, anyone with the correct identification will still be allowed to freely cross borders within the area. Under current rules, Exceptions are permitted only when countries feel their domestic security is threatened. France made use of this rule during the NATO summit in 2009 to conduct controls along the German border to prevent violent demonstrators from accessing the event. Major state visits, high-level meetings among politicians and large sporting events have also prompted temporary border controls in some nations.

But it is not just EU citizens who have enjoyed unprecedented freedom of travel in Europe since the Schengen Agreement was signed. Citizens of other countries with a valid Schengen visa also profit. But if their visa expires, they are required to leave.

More than 400 million people live inside the Schengen zone, which has land borders measuring more than 7,700 kilometers (4,784 miles) in length and sea coast of some 42,700 kilometers. Rules of the agreement are found in the Schengen Borders Code, which names the conditions under which countries can reinstate border controls. Both Italy and France have recently done so in reaction to the flood of refugees coming from northern Africa following political uprisings there.

Under Article 23 of the Schengen Borders Code, a member can reintroduce controls at inner EU borders "in the event of a serious threat to public order or national security" for a limited time period of 30 days or as long as the threat continues. These security measures must remain in accordance with the code, though. Article 24 requires countries that feel this may be necessary to inform the European Commission and other member states of their reasons for doing so.

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