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Fortress Europe

May 13, 2011

EU interior ministers have agreed on a need to amend laws governing the visa-free Schengen area, to take into account large surges in migration. Consensus could pave the way for temporary internal border controls.

A German patrol officer signals a car to pull over
Controls in the Schengen zone are now a mere rarityImage: AP

European Union interior ministers threw their support behind calls for legislation allowing temporarily expanded border controls inside the visa-free Schengen area at a special meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

Diplomats said ministers from more than 15 countries voiced support for amending Schengen rules to accommodate massive and unexpected migration surges, but stressed that border controls should only be used as a last resort.

"Currently it seems that the majority view is ... that one country should not be in a position to make a decision like that. That might trigger a chain reaction," said Hungarian Interior Minister Sandor Pinter, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.

"A community answer has to be given, but [what that is] depends on the negotiations."

Ministers voiced the need to preserve free movement in the 25-nation Schengen area at a time when tens of thousands of migrants fleeing unrest in North Africa have been arriving at European ports.

"Free movement of people on the territory of the union is one of the key achievements of the union and we have to maintain and safeguard this achievement," said Pinter.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, however, warned border control rules needed "increased clarity ... to avoid unilateral, uncoordinated decisions by member states."

The ministers had convened to discuss whether to allow Schengen countries to set up border checks in extraordinary cases of intensified migration, or when a fellow EU member state was unable to control the influx of migrants from any non-EU countries.

Under current rules, Schengen countries can reintroduce border controls for up to 30 days in case of threats to public order.

The European Commission plans to draft new migration proposals based on the ministers' input for an EU summit in June.

Infografik Die Staaten des Schengener Abkommens englisch
The Schengen accord was first written up in 1985

Denmark controversy

Although eyes in several European capitals were firmly focused on the outcome of the Brussels meeting, recent developments in Denmark overshadowed the start of proceedings.

On Wednesday, the Danish government decided to reinstate security checks at its borders with Germany and Sweden after an agreement with the country's main far-right party.

Copenhagen said it wanted to conduct random vehicle checks at the Oeresund Bridge that links Denmark and Sweden, as well as at its land border with Germany's Schleswig-Holstein state.

Denmark's immigration minister, Soren Pind, was forced to defend the move on Thursday as being consistent with the principles of Schengen.

"We don't want to bring back the borders," Pind said. "We are all for a free Europe, but strong customs control is not in discordance with Schengen and is actually a vital part of fighting cross-border crime.

The Danish-German border
Danish border police will carry out random vehicle checksImage: dapd

"This is a question of customs officers doing what customs officers have always done: seeing if there are drugs or hidden arms," he added.

Controls rebuked

Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany's interior minister, said his government was "a bit surprised" by the Danish decision: "Until now I did not receive official information about the reason, the cause and the extent of the controls," he said.

The unilateral Danish move brought a swift reaction from members of the European Parliament, with the president of the parliament and former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek commenting "we must not destroy Schengen."

Joseph Daul, who heads the assembly's biggest political group, the conservatives, said "the permanent reintroduction of controls at the borders is unacceptable."

German conservative Manfred Weber agreed. "We cannot build Europe on the basis of national selfishness," he said.

The European Commission has asked for clarification over the Danish decision, warning against any move to negate freedom of movement in Europe.

The issue garnered greater attention in April, when a row erupted between France and Italy over the latter's decision to issue permits allowing travel within Schengen to North African economic migrants.

Author: Darren Mara (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler