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Opinion

Opinion: The return of barriers in Europe?

Six European countries have reintroduced border controls. DW's Barbara Wesel predicts that this will jeopardize much more than just free travel across the continent.

The commuters who are stuck at the Oresund bridge between the Danish capital Copenhagen and Malmö in Sweden are annoyed by the newly introduced border checks: They are wasting time now and may have to pay a much higher price in the future if they are forced to find new jobs or move if daily cross-border travel gets too difficult to manage.

But on a bigger scale the new controls hamper cross-border trade and impact on economic development in the border regions.

It's been thirty years since the picturesque village of Schengen, situated amid vineyards on the banks of the River Mosel, lent its name to an agreement on border-free travel across the European continent. Now the name could come to symbolize the defeat of the European idea.

Barbara Wesel

DW's Brussels correspondent Barbara Wesel

The Schengen agreement and the introduction of the euro, the common European currency, are seen as the two pillars of the European Union. Barriers and passport controls have become things of the past, giving way to a relaxed, good neighborliness. Large regions have developed where people forge personal relationships, commute to work or school effortlessly from one country to another.

But all this is in jeopardy now just to limit the influx of more refugees.

If the Swedish government had analyzed the situation in a level-headed manner they would have realized that closing the border to Denmark would lead to the collapse not only of the economy in the border region, but also to a dramatic drop in exports, impacting the entire economy. This will likely be more costly than the burden of taking in more refugees.

Political acumen taking a back seat

The Swedish government did not act in a rational manner; they pandered to emotions. In a desperate attempt not to lose control of the situation they decided to close the border, setting off a chain reaction across Europe.

That is precisely the problem: It's all about emotions rather than strategy. The governments want to stay in control, ward off foreign influence, revel in nostalgia and memories of a time when each country could act alone to solve its problems. Despite all the progress in uniting the continent, the hearts and minds of the people have not changed fundamentally. When faced with big problems everyone again calls for national solutions and seeks safety and reassurance with national borders.

And politicians across the EU tend to cave in to that sentiment readily, without putting up a fight - with Angela Merkel as the laudable exception.

Across Europe, politicians stare in fear at the rise of right-wing nationalist parties, without putting up a fight. Instead of explaining to the people how much they stand to lose if they follow right wing populists and seclude themselves behind new fences and turnpikes, politicians in Sweden, Denmark and France cave in to the pressure from the right.

While criticizing the governments in Eastern Europe for embracing political regression, Western Europeans have failed to notice that nationalism has been rearing its ugly head across the continent. Its growing destructive power can be felt everywhere, while the German chancellor seems set to fail in her mission to spread optimism in the face of the challenges ahead.

Just before Christmas she said that she still believed it possible that the EU member states would come round to realize that solidarity is vital in coping with the refugee crisis. But there is no indication that this is happening.

Grim future?

On the contrary, it seems most governments across Europe would rather harm themselves than cooperate in developing constructive solutions: They flex their muscles in a misguided show of strength and accept harmful political and economic repercussions rather than risk giving their electorates the impression that they are weak on the refugee issue.

So can Schengen be salvaged? It seems too late to develop a joint approach in the refugee crisis. The dubious deal with Turkey to get it to prevent refugees from moving on has had little effect so far and the latest Saudi-Iranian conflict does not bode well for attempts at bringing peace and safety to the people in Syria. The outlook is grim.

2016 has gotten off to a bad start for Europe and it is hard to be optimistic. If Europe doesn't get its act together fast to stop the downward spiral, this year will turn into a truly disastrous year for the continent.

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