In early May, Denmark announced plans to reintroduce permanent controls along its borders. The move would be a clear violation of the Schengen Agreement, which since 1985 has seen the gradual removal of frontiers transform this Scandinavian country and 27 other European nations into one big open space.
Moves to bring back restrictions on freedom of movement within the Schengen Zone originated from the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DF). With 25 seats, it is the third biggest group in the national parliament. The center-right minority government is dependent on its support.
The DF appears to be dictating the content and direction of political debate in Denmark: Both the center-right government and also leftist opposition parties welcomed the border controls offensive by the right-wing populists.
At first glance, checks along national borders would seem an appropriate means of countering illegal immigration or smuggling and other forms of cross-border criminal activity. A closer look, however, reveals their utter lack of feasibility.
Smugglers and other lawbreakers had their ways of evading the customs authorities long before Schengen. Better cooperation between European police forces, not national isolation is the solution to combating crime in Europe.
It is remarkable, then, to see the Danish government potentially spending more than €30 million ($42 million) for new staff, new surveillance equipment and new border checkpoint facilities – this at a time when the big issue for the minority cabinet in Copenhagen is in actual fact budget reform.
Saving money while at the same time spending more on borders is hardly consistent, but the DF made the controls a condition for agreeing to a higher retirement age and other savings measures. Linking ostensibly conflicting demands in this manner is typical of right-wing populist politicians.
They purport to know the people and to take the concerns of the man on the street seriously. In practice, their policy proposals are seldom genuinely grassroots-oriented. And it’s even rarer to see them tackling questions that can actually be resolved politically, that is via actions based on an understanding between the people and the authorities.
Denmark has never really been in a position to patrol its 3,000-mile-long coast. The situation has been improved by coordination with neighboring countries within the scope of the Schengen system. New barriers are not just nonsensical; they are also incompatible with current European law, which only permits systematic border controls on a temporary basis whenever public order or internal security are under threat.
So it was not surprising to see Copenhagen back away from the original demand by the DF and instead announce more intensive customs inspections, which are not only in accordance with Schengen, but expressly envisaged by the accord. In practice, nothing will change on Denmark’s borders.
Thus, the DF appears to belong to a species of right-wing populist groups that are largely harmless for Europe. Like the “True Finns” or the Netherlands’ “Party for Freedom”, the DF is structurally unfit for government. Most of their demands – from Finland pulling out of the EU to a halt on Muslim immigration to the Netherlands – are not achievable.
The real danger lies in politicians from the mainstream parties who act like right-wing populists: France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, repatriating a few thousand members of Europe’s Roma minority from a country numbering 65 million inhabitants back to their native Bulgaria and Romania; or closing the border to Italy because of some 10,000 Tunisian refugees.
Such numbers clearly indicate that France’s actions in both cases were out of all proportion. But on the latter issue, Sarkozy’s government was not alone. Bavarian politicians likewise called for Germany, with its population of 81 million, to reintroduce border checks due to the few thousand Tunisian refugees in southern Italy 1,250 miles away. As of mid-May a grand total of 65 Tunisians had crossed the border into Germany.
Bavaria is a microcosm of the populist pattern of reaction. Two years ago the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost its absolute majority in the regional parliament for the first time in five decades, and now fears being sent into opposition at the next elections. For this reason, CSU chairman Horst Seehofer has been increasingly resorting to xenophobic and other populist clichés.
Islamophobia has taken the place of traditional European anti-Semitism, as evidenced by the debate about the burqa ban that dominated France for months. In fact the country is home to just a few hundred wearers of the full-body covering. The state would in any case have minimal scope for action on this front. Who wants to pay police to monitor veiled women instead of preventing genuine crime?
The situation is similar when it comes to the credibility of calls for new border controls. They are ineffectual in the fight against crime – as well as being expensive. Open borders, on the other hand, are of great value. For the 400 million people living in the Schengen countries they arguably constitute the most palpable achievement of European integration.
But even if, as seems likely, the Danish initiative turns out to be much ado about nothing, the fact remains that an EU government has called into question one of the core European civil liberties. And that is damaging to Europe.