Denmark under fire for reinstating border checks

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Denmark came under a barrage of European fire Thursday over its sudden decision to reintroduce controls at its borders with Germany and Sweden, despite its membership of the Schengen passport-free zone.

Arriving in Brussels for tough and sensitive talks on the future of the border-free area enabling 400 million people to travel unfettered across 25 nations, Denmark's Integration Minister Soren Pind said his government's announcement the previous day concerned customs officers, not border police.

"I see a lot of drama in the European press but I am going to state things like they are," Pind said, insisting that the Schengen open borders agreement permitted such actions.

"I think that when this model is studied carefully, everyone will see that it is, if I may quote Shakespeare, much ado about nothing," he said.

He stressed that Danish authorities were deployed as customs agents, not border police, and that their job will be to scan vehicles for any criminal activities. "This has nothing to do with personal passport controls," he said.

Following an agreement between the government and the far-right, Denmark said the new controls would enter into force within two to three weeks.

Also in Brussels for the talks, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said his government was "a bit surprised" by the Danish move and would listen to Pind's explanation.

"Until now I did not receive official information about the reason, the cause and the extent of the controls," Friedrich said.

Announced as the European Union mulls reinstating border controls in exceptional circumstances, the unilateral Danish decision caused uproar in some quarters, with members of the European Parliament sharply critical.

"We must not destroy Schengen," the president of the parliament and former Polish prime minister Jerzy Buzek said.

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.

Should Copenhagen insist, Denmark should quit Schengen "in which case the Danes will quickly see the disadvantages."

"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 European Commission has asked Denmark to explain its decision, warning against any challenge to freedom of movement in Europe.

"We have asked for a clarification," a commission spokesman said Thursday.

The EU's executive arm, he said, "will not accept a challenge to the principle of freedome of movement of goods and people in the European Union".

EU interior ministers meanwhile continued a special meeting to discuss the possibility of temporarily restoring border controls within the EU amid an upsurge of migrants that has stirred political debate, particularly on the far-right.

The executive European Commission has proposed an agreement to allow states to reinstate checkpoints temporarily when under sudden migratory pressure or if an EU country fails to control its frontier with non-EU nations.

© 2011 AFP

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