Fresh concern for Europe’s passport-free zone as Sweden, Denmark tighten borders

Security staff check a traveller's identification at Kastrups train station outside Copenhagen, Denmark on Jan  4, 2016.
Security staff check a traveller's identification at Kastrups train station outside Copenhagen, Denmark on Jan 4, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

COPENHAGEN (BLOOMBERG, AFP) – Denmark is enforcing what it described as temporary controls on its German border, following its Scandinavian neighbors Sweden and Norway in stepping up measures to stem the influx of migrants from the war-ravaged Middle East.

Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, who signalled in a New Year’s speech that his government was considering the move, said the controls took effect at noon local time. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was briefed before the measures were enforced, Rasmussen said. The controls will initially be imposed for a period of 10 days, he said.

Merkel responded by calling for a “joint European solution,” her spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin. “The solution won’t take place on national borders between country A and country B.”

Denmark’s clampdown marks the latest move putting passport- free travel across Europe at risk as the Schengen agreement designed to bring the union closer together shows signs of unravelling. Martin Schaefer, a spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry, said the Schengen regime is “in danger,” after Rasmussen unveiled his country’s border controls on Monday (Jan 4).

But the Danes are passing on the blame and say Sweden’s decision to start official border checks forced the government in Copenhagen to resort to controls toward Germany. As of Monday (Jan 4), Sweden started inspecting the IDs of people crossing their border by road, rail or sea.

“For the first time since the 1950s, one will now need an ID-card to cross” over to Sweden, Rasmussen said in his Jan. 1 speech. “This shows what’s at stake.” 

In a Facebook post on Monday (Jan 4), Rasmussen said the decision will create “difficulty and problems for the many people who every day commute” between the two countries, describing it as a “major step backwards.” 

The spat marks a low point in Danish-Swedish relations after Prime Minister Stefan Loefven last year joined Germany in welcoming hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Sweden was then forced to backtrack on its generous policy, arguing that Europe’s failure to share the burden of absorbing refugees made its position untenable. About 80,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden in October and November, roughly as many as entered the country in all of 2014.

Travellers headed for Sweden on Monday (Jan 4) were met by manned controls at the train station at Copenhagen airport, the last stop before trains cross the Oeresund bridge to Malmoe, Sweden’s third-largest city. Each day, about 74,900 people cross the bridge, which connects Sweden to Denmark and is the longest road and rail link in Europe. Another 20,900 use the ferry between the towns of Elsinore and Helsingborg.

In the 1990s, the two countries wanted to create a cross- border business and urban area, which they estimated would more than justify the 30 billion-krone (S$6.3 billion) cost of building the Oeresund bridge. The plan also received European Union funding, and has been held up as a prime example of economic integration across borders.

But border checks are now challenging such visions as well as the broader Schengen agreement and the ideals behind its creation. 

Meanwhile, the influx of people fleeing war in the Middle East may pose an even bigger threat to Europe’s economy than the debt crisis from which it has only just emerged, Nobel economics laureate Angus Deaton said last month. The development “could certainly make the economic situation very much worse,” he said in an interview in Stockholm.