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The Saboteurs Among Us: Danish Border Controls Shake EU Foundations

A Commentary By

With the reintroduction of border controls, the Danes are calling into question one of the EU's greatest achievements. Unfortunately, there has been little protest in Brussels and other European capitals. There is growing fatigue regarding European integration -- and that is a bitterly disappointing trend.

A control on the Schengen external border (in Slovenia): A milestone of European integration Zoom

A control on the Schengen external border (in Slovenia): A milestone of European integration

When he was still the governor of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber seized every opportunity to curse Brussels officialdom. So it ought to give pause to people that the same Stoiber is today lamenting a "renaissance of nationalism" in European capitals. "I am concerned that Europe is crumbling," the former leader of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party said in Brussels last week. He has been appointed by the European Commission to reduce EU bureaucracy.

The Schengen Agreement eliminating internal border controls is considered to be a milestone of European integration. No single European Union policy has generated as much enthusiasm among the citizens of Europe as the freedom of borderless travel. Driven by the EU-critical and latently xenophobic Danish People's Party, the move by the Danish government this week to reintroduce border controls, even if only spot checks, is shaking the foundations of Europe.

The development is serious, and is part of a trend. Anti-Europeansare on the rise in other parts of Europe as well. In Holland, a minority government is tolerated by right-wing populist Geert Wilders, in France President Nicolas Sarkozy is competing for votes in the upcoming election with Marine Le Pen of the Front National and in Italy, the right-wingers in Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord are part of the government.

It was Rome and Paris that first announced they would partially reintroduce border controls. The reason was negligible, and the step was motivated purely by politics. Around 30,000 refugees from North Africa had landed on the coasts of Italy and Malta. By comparison: During the 1990s, more than 100,000 refugees fled from Kosovo to Europe, but nobody at the time threatened to dispose of the right of Europeans to border-free internal travel.

But something has changed fundamentally since the 1990s. Europe's nations are no longer ruled by dyed-in-the-wool champions of the European project like Helmut Kohl, François Mitterand or Felipe Gonzales, but by cool and calculating politicians like Angela Merkel or political egocentrics such as Nicolas Sarkozy. The main difference between these politicians and the right-wing populists is in ther methods: Whereas the populists openly proclaim their desire to exit the EU, the others are eliminating the political union bit by bit.

Europe's Guardian Has Little Endurance

In Germany, for example, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU, the sister party to Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democratic Union(CDU) may have sharply criticized Denmark, France and Italy for going it alone and implementing border controls. At the same time, however, he expressed his understanding for the idea that there might be a need to reintroduce border controls temporarily during emergency situations. And he also wants to leave it up to EU member states to make those decisions -- in other words, let political opportunism dictate matters -- and not the European Commission, which is able to act free of domestic political considerations.

The same also holds true for the EU's second great achievement, whose future is also at stake right now: the common currency. Appeals like "the euro is our common fate" are too vague to get across to the people. The truth is more concrete: Why doesn't Angela Merkel state that, each year, Germany exports more goods to the Netherlands than the supposedly massive Chinese market? Then, at least, every German would understand why we profit from the fact that our companies are no longer exposed to the risks of currency exchange rates in Europe.

Instead of providing a clear vision, the chancellor is busily engaged in backroom dealmaking, just like her predecessor Gerhard Schröder was before her. Working together with then-French President Jacques Chirac, he weakened the Stability Pact for the euro and violated the common currency zone rule -- that annual deficit spending cannot exceed three percent of gross domestic product -- several years in a row. And though Merkel insists that the stability criteria must be adhered to, when it comes to the question of how violations should be punished, her strict stance evaporates. During her walk along the seaside in Deauville, France, last autumn with President Sarkozy, she yielded and said she would no longer insist on automatic sanctions for countries that violate the budget deficit rules.

At the very least, the European Parliament must take firm stance this time. It has the power of co-decision when it comes to reforming the Stability Pact and has so far been insisting on automatic sanctions -- one of the reasons a deal on a second bailout package for Greece has been delayed until autumn. The parliament has proven to be the true guardian of European integration in terms of both Schengen and the euro. The European Commission caved in on both those issues. On the Stability Pact, Commission officials argued behind the scenes for a compromise. And despite its early criticism of the Danish border controls, the Commission no longer sees anything wrong with them.

One would expect a bit more steadfastness from a European Commission that views itself as being the "guardian of the European treaties."

Christoph Schult is SPIEGEL's European Affairs and Brussels Correspondent.

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1. The Saboteurs among us
Inglenda2 07/05/2011
Sorry, but I completely disagree! I cross at least six European borders every year and find no trouble when asked to show my papers and luggage when crossing from France to England and back. On the contrary, it gives a feeling of safety which one no longer has near the frontier regions of Belgium, Holland, Poland or the Czech Republic. The spread of crime in Europe is killing any feeling of unity. I think the Danish Border Controls show the right way to keep crime down in the EU and would welcome the return of such safety methods in Germany.
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Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: New Checks on the Danish Border

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.

Graphic: Europe's Right Turn Zoom

Graphic: Europe's Right Turn

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