For more than 400 million Europeans, open borders are the most important achievement of a unified Europe. Since the Schengen Agreement entered force in 1995, they no longer have to wait in line at the frontiers. Free citizens can move freely throughout their continent. But now that freedom is endangered: In April, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich from the Bavarian Christian Social Union, and his French counterpart Claude GuEant of the rightwing populist UMP, demanded that Schengen countries should be allowed to reintroduce border controls for a 30-day period without having to consult the EU Commission. Ironically, the two conservatives formulated their appeal in a letter to the Danish EU presidency. Almost a year ago, the Danish People’s Party tried to persuade the ruling center-right government, since voted out of power anyway, to reintroduce border checks, by threatening to withhold their support in parliament for proposed government spending cuts. However, it soon became clear just how expensive new border measures would be. The cost of reactivating frontier posts, redeploying the border police and training new officers would have cost Denmark at least € 30 million ($ 40 million) – difficult to reconcile with an austerity package.
Border experts also declared that passport checks would not prevent crime and illegal immigration but make it easier to commit. Denmark never really properly patrolled its 5,000-kilometer-long coast. How could it? Posting a guard every 500 meters would require 30,000 officials working in three shifts 365 days a year.
Politicians and the public in the EU rejected the German-French proposal and the German media suspected an election maneuver related to the presidential vote in France. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is under pressure not just from Socialist challenger Francois Hollande but also from the far-right Marine Le Pen.
Sarkozy had already been eyeing up Le Pen’s voters anyway, adopting her campaign issues and calling for immigration to be cut in half. But to no avail: Le Pen polled a hefty 17.9 percent in the first round of voting. That German politicians are calling for borders to be closed again is simply absurd. They should know that frontiers don’t solve any problems. And they should know what’s really required.
Until the accession of Poland and the Czech Republic in 2007, Germany had the longest external EU frontier. Thanks to close cooperation, training and information exchange with the border authorities of these countries, the situation on the European Union’s eastern approaches was and is just as good as in Switzerland - where rightwing populists also regularly scream for more controls.
Frontier barriers give simple souls a feeling of national sovereignty. But they are unsuited to combating international crime and illegal immigration. The solution? There is one that has made the EU strong since its very beginnings: close cooperation and mutual trust among European partners.