It was less that one year ago that Denmark decided to reintroduce controls on its borders with Germany and Sweden, a move, Copenhagen said, that was necessary to put a stop to illegal immigration and organized crime. The reactions from Berlin and other European capitals were immediate and unequivocal. The step taken by Copenhagen marked a "bad day for Europe," said German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. Europe's border-free travel regime, said the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, "cannot be infringed upon."
Now, just nine months later, it is Germany itself that is looking to weaken the Schengen Agreement, the treaty signed in 1985 to remove inner-European border controls. According to a report in the Friday edition of daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany and France are seeking to change the treaty to allow for the temporary reintroduction of border controls.
The paper reports that German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and his French counterpart Claude Guéant have formulated a letter to the European Union demanding the change. The reintroduction of controls, they wrote according toSüddeutsche, should be possible as "an ultima ratio" -- that is, measure of last resort -- "and for a limited period of time" should border controls in southern and eastern Europe prove unable to prevent illegal immigration. Later in the letter, the two write that controls could be re-established for periods of 30 days.The proposals will be discussed at next week's meeting of various Interior Ministers but, as is the way of these things, no decision can be expected till June, which means that the proposal cannot be simply a way of assisting Nicolas Sarkozy in his apparently hopeless bid for re-election as the more cynical German commentators have suggested. (I say "apparently" because one can never quite predict what might happen in the French presidential elections, the first of which is due this Sunday.)
Carsten Volkery, who writes for Der Spiegel from London, is not amused.
But the proposal is far from harmless and would throw Europe back decades. Since 1995, the citizens of Schengen-zone countries have gotten used to freely traveling within Continental Europe. Next to the euro common currency, free movement is probably the strongest symbol of European unity. Indeed, for many people, it's what makes this abstract idea tangible in the first place.
To throw this achievement into doubt now is a vote of no confidence in Europe. The fact that this proposal is coming in the middle of the French election campaign makes it even more suspicious. With his back to the wall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is pretending to take a tough-guy stance toward immigrants. And the fact that Germany's interior minister is allowing himself to get caught up in this charade is regrettable. Still, if you take a look at his party affiliations -- as a member of the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- it's hardly surprising.Worse even than that:
But this symbolic act could have drastic consequences. It is a relapse into the type of nationalist thinking that many viewed as part of the past. And it brings to mind a country that continental Europeans like to make fun of for its obsession with its own borders: Great Britain.Well, of course, Herr Volkery is welcome to peddle this idea that Britain is the EU's most dissident member. We on this blog know better: nothing dissident about this government as far as the colleagues in Brussels are concerned. The Boy-King and his little mates wouldn't dare. But France and Germany? That's quite a different kettle of poisson.