Denmark rebuilds borders, Commission alarmed

German-Danish border.jpg

Denmark's centre-right government yesterday (11 May) agreed to introduce border controls at its ports and airports, as well as along its only land border with Germany and its bridge to Sweden. The European Commission asked for additional information and said it would not accept any roll-back of the Schengen treaty.

The Danish government caved in to the demands of the Danish People's Party, a populist and anti-immigration party that has been holding up approval of its 2020 economic plan.

"We have agreed on permanent border controls which we will implement as soon as possible," Finance Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said on TV 2 News after the border deal had been struck with the Danish People's Party and the small Christian Democratic Party.

The new controls at all of Denmark's borders will be within the scope of the Schengen agreement, the Finance Ministry said in a statement.

The Schengen treaty abolished border controls within Europe and currently consists of 25 nations. Denmark has signed the Schengen agreement, but has kept its freedom not to apply certain measures (see 'Background').

The political deal will mean investing in new border control facilities, more customs officials, extensive video surveillance of cars crossing Danish borders and rapid police assistance if customs officers need it, the statement said.

EU Commission critical

The European Union's executive – which enforces the Schengen treaty – said it would request further details from the Danish authorities in order to assess the controls.

"It should be clear that the [European] Commission cannot and will not accept any attempt to roll back the EU treaty, either for free movement of goods or persons at internal borders," spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said in a statement.

EU interior ministers are meeting in Brussels for an extraordinary meeting today (12 May) to discuss Commission plans to reinstate border checks under "exceptional circumstances," such as when a member state fails to protect its own borders.

Presenting its proposals last week, the European Commission insisted border controls would have to be temporary and subject to "specific and clearly defined criteria" agreed at EU level.

The proposals followed heavy pressure from France, which re-erected its border with Italy, accusing Rome of failing to contain waves of North African immigrants fleeing the violence in the Arab world.

Danish pension reform

In Denmark, the border control plan has been criticised by some pro-European Union Danes who say Copenhagen should not be raising new barriers in Europe just months before it takes over the presidency of the EU at the beginning of 2012.

Denmark has a land border with Germany and is linked by bridge to Sweden in addition to its entry points at airports and sea ports.

The parties agreed to earmark up to 150 million Danish crowns (17.70 million pounds) for investments in new control equipment and data systems, as well as up to 35 million in 2011, rising to up to 119 million in 2015, for more customs officials and a strengthened police presence, the ministry said.

Frederiksen said he was convinced that the new controls would help curb crime and boost security in Denmark, but Danish People's Party leader Pia Kjaersgaard made clear there was no similar breakthrough on proposals for pension reform.

"We are still far from reaching the goal of agreeing on a retirement reform," Kjaersgaard said on TV 2 News.

The government's pension reform plan aims to scrap an early pension deal that now lets Danes retire at age 60 instead of 65 and to bring forward an increase in the general retirement age to 67. The government says early pensions are far too costly.

Kjaersgaard, whose party's support is crucial for the Liberal-Conservative minority coalition government, said the talks would continue.

"This is not over, we are still working on all of the issues which this entire pension reform and Denmark's economic situation has led to, and it is not the case that we are done for today, or tomorrow," she said.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Søren Pind, Denmark's minister for integration, was quoted by Dow Jones Newswires as saying "I see a lot of drama in the European press but I am going to state things like they are […] I think that when this model is studied carefully, everyone will see that it is, if I may quote Shakespeare, much ado about nothing".

He emphasised that Denmark would be deploying customs agents as opposed to border police and insisted that "this has nothing to do with personal passport controls".

Belgian MEP and liberal ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstad said that "even if the Danish measures from a legal point of view were to be found within the Treaty provisions, they go completely against its spirit, thus undermining one of the greatest EU achievements".

"And they certainly are contrary to the liberal vision of a borderless Europe and marks a very worrying threat to the essence of EU integration," he added.

Spanish MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar, leader of the Spanish delgation in the European Parliament's Socialists & Democrats group, said in a press release on proposed changes to Schengen that "it is unacceptable that populist anti-European pressures have led to this situation because this sends a a message that is discouraging, profoundly negative and against the Europe that we need".

Schengen is a village at the border between Luxembourg, France and Germany, where an agreement was signed in 1985 to gradually abolish checks at common borders between those countries, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Gradually, the process was taken further. In 1995, border controls were abolished between Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

Today, the Schengen border-free area consists of 25 member states: 22EU countries (all except Bulgaria, Romania, Ireland, the UK and Cyprus) as well as three associated countries: Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Denmark has signed the Schengen agreement, but has kept its freedom not to apply certain measures.

The UK and Ireland decided to stay outside the Schengen area.

Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, remain outside the agreement due to political opposition from France and other older EU members. These members say Bulgaria and Romania have shortcomings in their police and judicial systems. Both countries are placed under a special monitoring system, called a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.

 

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