After the euro debt crisis, another symbol of European integration faces a key test as governments consider resurrecting barriers within the cherished border-free travel area.
A day after Denmark decided to reintroduce controls at its open borders with Germany and Sweden, EU interior ministers were to hold a special meeting in Brussels yesterday to tackle the continent’s struggle with immigration.
A wave of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean after upheaval in Tunisia and Libya, combined with the rise of far-right parties, has raised the specter of a return to internal border controls in the 25-nation travel-free area loved by EU citizens and tourists alike.
The ministers were to debate European Commission proposals to allow the temporary return of border guards in the case of sudden surges in migration, or should an EU country fail to control its frontier with non-EU nations.
Denmark, however, refused to wait for talks to begin, announcing on Wednesday that it would restore controls at its borders with Sweden and Germany within three weeks, under pressure from the xenophobic far-right.
“Over the past few years we have seen an increase in transborder crime, and this is designed to curb the problem,” Danish Finance Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said.
France and Italy likewise favor the temporary return of internal borders following a surge in recent weeks of migrants from Tunisia and Libya.
Struggling to cope with the arrival of thousands of migrants, Italy last month handed temporary residency permits to 20,000 migrants allowing them to travel freely within the 25-state borderless Schengen area — a move that angered France and other EU countries.
The EU’s external borders had already seen strain in Greece, where the debt-stricken government has struggled with an influx of migrants sneaking in from neighboring Turkey.
France and Germany have also put the brakes on Schengen’s further expansion, blocking bids by Bulgaria and Romania to join the border-free area this year until they show progress fighting corruption and organized crime.
While proposing that any decision to close borders should be made at a European level, rather than unilaterally, the European Commission has warned against building a “fortress Europe” in response to populist pressures.
Its package of proposals on immigration include reinforcing the pan-European Frontex border agency and offering incentives to convince nations like Tunisia to take back illegal immigrations.
“This is not about finding ways for member states to reintroduce border controls,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the European Parliament on Tuesday.
“I firmly believe that to do so would catastrophically undermine not just what Europe has constructed over the last 61 years, but to sabotage the viability of our efforts to build a prosperous and integrated Europe for the future,” Barroso said.