Denmark imposes new border checks to keep out immigrants, 'criminals'

The right-wing Danish People's Party insisted that Denmark, part of the Schengen travel zone, impose spot border checks to keep out 'criminals from Eastern Europe.'

Keld Navntoft/Scanpix/Reuters
Danish custom officers patrol at the Oeresund Bridge border control between Denmark and Sweden on July 5, 2011. Denmark reinforced its borders on Tuesday by stationing additional customs officers at frontier crossings in a bid to halt illegal imports.

Sixteen years after the Schengen agreement ended border controls for European citizens throughout most of the Continent, Denmark today appeared to take a major step away from the deal by imposing spot checks on people traveling from Germany or Sweden.

The move was demanded by the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) and, according to DPP leader Pia Kjærsgaard, designed to keep out “criminals from Eastern Europe and illegal economic migrants."

In the past few years, populist movements have gained ground politically by campaigning against immigration, claiming that newcomers have not only become an economic drain but are also altering traditional European values. In Denmark, Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, who is heading a minority government, depends on the support of the DPP, which saw large gains in 2007 parliamentary elections.

Today's decision met strong reactions on this side of the border. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned that the checks would be a bad omen for freedom in Europe.

The Europe minister in the German state of Hesse called on Germans to boycott Denmark as a holiday destination.

“Freedom of movement is one of the most prominent European achievements,” Jörg Uwe Hahn said in interview with the Danish daily Jyllandsposten. “Whoever touches it, attacks the very idea of Europe.”

The Danish government dismissed Mr. Hahn’s comments as “hysterical."

The European Commission had warned Denmark when it first announced the checks in May that it could not unilaterally put up permanent barriers and remain a member of the Schengen treaty at the same time.

Consequently, Denmark now argues that it has not reintroduced border controls but only intensified spot checks by its customs officers that are legal in the Schengen area.

"This is a matter of reinforced customs controls where we will go after illegal import of, among other things, narcotics, weapons, and large amounts of money," tax and customs administration director Erling Andersen said in a statement.

“Don’t be fooled – this is only the beginning,” says Erik Boel, president of the European Movement in Denmark, an international organization promoting European integration. “They are planning a comprehensive control infrastructure, costing 250 million Danish Krone [$48.5 million].”

Speaking on his cellphone from the Danish-German border, Mr. Boel described the Danish move as part of a wider trend in Europe. “There is a nationalistic development in many parts of Europe. Anti-immigration parties profit from people’s sense of insecurity in times of financial crisis.”

Populist movements have gained ground not only in Denmark, but also in Finland, the Netherlands, France, Austria, and Italy. Boel also lists European enlargement – the inclusion of poorer countries from eastern Europe into the union – and people’s mistrust of European institutions as reasons.

“People are very attached to their nation states. They don’t want the United States of Europe. On the other hand, Brussels is very handy as a scapegoat. If politicians have a domestic problem, they play the European card. That’s exactly what happened in Denmark," he says.

The Schengen area includes 25 member states with 400 million citizens. Border controls are only allowed under extraordinary circumstances. In May, the governments of France and Italy asked for the temporary reintroduction of checks to control the influx of migrants from Northern Africa.

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