Government locked in dispute over borders

Government and DF win majority but lose composure over border control agreement

The government secured the majority it needs for its ‘permanent border control’ agreement last week by the narrowest of margins. In a vote of 90 for and 89 against, parliament cleared the way for the deployment of 98 additional border customs agents – more or less – and sent a strong message to the rest of the EU about how “open” Denmark wants to be.

The razor-thin margin of approval – secured by the single mandate of Per Ørum Jørgensen of the Christian Democrats – was itself symbolic of how controversial the symbol-laden agreement is both inside and outside the nation’s borders.

‘Permanent Customs Control in Denmark’, as it is officially called, is widely acknowledged to be the Liberal-Conservative government’s ‘payment’ to the Danish People’s Party for supporting its 2020 budget reform plan, particularly early retirement reform.

The agreement calls for 98 new customs agents on Denmark’s borders, 24-hour manned borders, four new customs houses, roads separated into six lanes, spot-checks, video surveillance and high-tech ‘contraband’ scanners to come by 2014.

Before the border control agreement was signed last month, the finance minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen, who was instrumental in writing the agreement with the DF, claimed that border controls would “prevent eastern European gangs from wreaking havoc in our country”.

The National Police, however, have maintained that border controls will have little effect on stopping international criminals or organised crime in Denmark, but their assessment had little sway with the government and the DF, which also got political support from the leading opposition parties, the Social Democrats and Socialist PeopleÂ’s Party.

Only the Social Liberals and the Red-Green Alliance opposed the tightened border controls from the beginning.

But last week, in the wake of warnings from EU neighbours and business leaders, both home and abroad, that the border controls run afoul of EU co-operation and the Schengen Agreement, which guarantee free movement of people and goods, the opposition leaders changed their tune and began to question the agreement.

When Germany’s vice foreign affairs minister, Werner Hoyer, wrote in an article published in all 27 EU countries last week that EU countries now considering new border controls (namely Denmark, France and Italy) were “playing with nationalism’s fire”, the controversy became a full-blown diplomatic row. DF leader Pia Kjærsgaard hit back in Politiken that Hoyer – as a German – had no right to tell other countries about the dangers of nationalism.

One of Denmark’s right-wing elder statesmen and most seasoned diplomats was stunned by the tone of Kjærsgaard’s attack.

“Hoyer wrote very carefully that [Germany’s history with Nazism and Hitler] was precisely why he was warning against nationalism,” former Liberal party foreign affairs minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen told Politiken. “It was totally unfair and a painful insult to be accused of that sort of thing. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read what she wrote.”

Ellemann-Jensen added that it was no wonder the international community was up in arms.

“Many of them [in the DF] have loudly celebrated that we are now going to be done with Schengen. One [DF politician] said we could now return to the way it was before we came into Schengen. When you say things like that you can’t accuse others of taking what we say too seriously,” he said.

As the controversy escalated, the government began backtracking on its earlier tough-talk and claimed that the international community had “misunderstood” what the border control agreement was really about – which was “tariffs” not “eastern European criminial gangs”.

The foreign affairs minister Lene Espersen and the immigration and development minister Søren Pind released a press statement – in English – to clarify the misunderstandings for the international audience. But curiously, their statement omitted some of the most controversial elements of the agreement.

The border control agreement (in Danish only) refers to “a significant rise in cross-border criminality” and “criminality by foreign gangs” as the basis for the new measures, with the goal of hindering “suspicious people” from committing crimes in Denmark. But none of that was included in the ministers’ English-language statement. Instead, Espersen and Pind said that the border controls were aimed at halting “tariff fraud”.

Finance minister Frederiksen last week admitted the border plans had indeed hurt DenmarkÂ’s image internationally.

“A lot of the talk has had a clearly damaging effect on our reputation,” Frederiksen told Information newspaper.

But while the government was waffling, the message from its critics was clear.

José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission chairman, maintained that the border control agreement violated Schengen and that the Commission would not let Denmark slip over the line on its EU responsibilities without a fight.

Experts in EU law also maintained that Denmark was on a collision course with the EU.

According to Gerd Battrup, a professor from the University of Southern DenmarkÂ’s Institute for Border Region Studies, two specific points are especially problematic: the permanent video monitoring and the partitioning of the roadway into six different lanes with scanners and control facilities.

“The goal with Schengen is to ensure free movement across the national borders. Therefore you cannot create provisions that function as border controls,” she told Politiken. “I don’t think they can implement the agreement and be part of Schengen at the same time.”

Marlene Wind, a professor in civics from the University of Copenhagen agreed.

“The moment you direct cars into six lanes with stops and set up video cameras, you have a form of surveillance. I simply don’t think that holds up to our international duties,” Wind told Politiken.

Wind has often been quoted in the Danish media for her take on issues concerning EU law, her area of expertise. She added that the agreement looked to her like a case of “electioneering” – a reference to this year’s upcoming election.

In reaction to her comment, Pind called her “Halv-Vind” on his Facebook page – a play on her last name that roughly translates as ‘half-cocked’ or ‘half-assed’, which Wind said was at too low a level to even merit comment. Kjærsgaard added that Wind had “crossed the line” as an academic commentator and told public broadcaster DR that Wind should be fired or suspended for her statements about the government and the DF’s border control agreement.

And so, as the division over border controls and Denmark’s possible engagement with “nationalism’s fire” continues through jabs and threats across political lines, the agreement is expected to come up for final approval in parliament this week.

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