Germany and France are serious this time. During next week's meeting of European Union interior ministers, the two countries plan to start a discussion about reintroducing national border controls within the Schengen zone. According to the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and his French counterpart, Claude Guéant, have formulated a letter to their colleagues in which they call for governments to once again be allowed to control their borders as "an ultima ratio" -- that is, measure of last resort -- "and for a limited period of time." They reportedly go on to recommend 30-days for the period.
Of course, using catchphrases like "ultima ratio" and "limited period of time" is supposed to make such policies sound reasonable and proportionate. After all, the reasoning goes, it's just a few occasional border controls for up to 30 days. What's the big deal, right?
But the proposal is far from harmless and would throw Europe back decades. Since 1995, the citizens of Schengen-zone countries have gotten used to freely traveling within Continental Europe. Next to the euro common currency, free movement is probably the strongest symbol of European unity. Indeed, for many people, it's what makes this abstract idea tangible in the first place.
Schengen Is Admittedly Imperfect
To throw this achievement into doubt now is a vote of no confidence in Europe. The fact that this proposal is coming in the middle of the French election campaign makes it even more suspicious. With his back to the wall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is pretending to take a tough-guy stance toward immigrants. And the fact that Germany's interior minister is allowing himself to get caught up in this charade is regrettable. Still, if you take a look at his party affiliations -- as a member of the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- it's hardly surprising.
Nevertheless, Friedrich must still answer the question of what prompted this change of heart. After all, when Denmark announced that it would reintroduce border controls last year, he was the one warning against casting doubt on travel freedoms. But now he's playing along with this populist game himself.
Granted, the Schengen system is not perfect. With the EU's eastward expansion, its external borders have become more porous. The problem areas are well-known: Greece doesn't sufficiently guard its border with Turkey, and Italy simply allows refugees through to continue their journey into neighboring countries. Doing so violates the Schengen Agreement, which stipulates that immigrants have to be taken care of by the country in which they arrive.
The Last Thing the EU Needs
Still, both of these problems appear to be solvable without simultaneously watering down the principle of free movement. One can strengthen border protection and find a better way to distribute refugees within the EU. The only thing needed for such measures is political will. Indeed, putting restraints on Schengen freedoms is the last thing Europe needs right now given the fact that the euro crisis has already put serious strain on European unity. Populist maneuvers on other issues cannot be allowed to further hasten the trend toward renationalization.
On top of all these concerns, one must also ask what 30-day border controls are supposed to accomplish. No one can seriously believe they will change migration within the Schengen zone in any meaningful way.
Instead, one is led to believe that this is much more of a matter of symbolism for Germany and France: They want to make it clear that governments bear ultimate responsibility for their borders and can always seal them, if necessary. This is a demonstration of strength against the European Commission, which recently asserted its right to have a voice on issues related to border controls.
But this symbolic act could have drastic consequences. It is a relapse into the type of nationalist thinking that many viewed as part of the past. And it brings to mind a country that continental Europeans like to make fun of for its obsession with its own borders: Great Britain.