EC 'Doubts' Legality of Denmark's Plan to Restore Intra-Schengen Border Checks

Bulgaria in EU | May 13, 2011, Friday // 17:25|  views

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom (L) and Hungarian Interior Minister Sandor Pinter speak after EU Interior Ministers Council in Brussels, 12 May 2011. EPA/BGNES

The European Commission made it clear it has "important doubts" about a proposal by the Danish government to restart checks on goods and merchandise at its frontiers.

A "first legal assessment" of Denmark's plan "raises important doubts about whether the proposed measures, if implemented in the intensive and permanent way that has been announced, would be in line with Denmark's obligations under European and international law," commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen told reporters in Brussels Friday, as cited by Bloomberg.

The spokeswoman cited a draft letter by European Commission President Jose Barroso to the Prime Minister of Denmark. Barroso spoke with Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen Friday morning and will send the letter to him once it's completed, Ahrenkilde-Hansen said.

The spokeswoman said the Commission's analysis "raises important doubts" as to whether the measures respect European Union treaties and international laws.

She said Denmark's move "appears to put in question" EU laws.

"We have concerns...and this is what we will be looking into in the next days," the spokeswoman said as cited by Dow Jones.

She said Barroso had asked Denmark to "refrain from unilateral steps" on the border issue and maintain a close dialogue with the Commission.

On Wednesday, Denmark announced plans to set up customs booths at land border crossings, harbors and airports to make random checks of travelers, but vowed to adhere to the Schengen rules. The border controls are supposed to be introduced within two to three weeks, according to the Danish Finance Minister.

The European Commission asked Thursday explanations from Denmark regarding the country's decision to reinstate control at its borders with Sweden and Germany.

The European Commission "will not accept" any challenge to the principle of freedom of movement of goods and people in the European Union, Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, who is also from Denmark, is quoted as saying.

Denmark's decision came only a day before the scheduled emergency meeting of the ministers of interior and justice from the European Union Member States dedicated to the future of the Schengen zone.

The minority government in Copenhagen announced Wednesday that it had reached a political deal to boost checks by customs officials in a bid to curb smuggling and other cross-border criminal activity.

In return, the government hopes to win concessions from right-wing populists to accept raising the early retirement age as part of its 2020 reform package, DPA points out.

Denmark's immigration minister, Soren Pind, vigorously defended the move as being consistent with Europe's border-free Schengen area upon his arrival in Brussels on Thursday.

"We're not going to shut down the borders," he said, as cited by DPA, noting that passport controls are not on the table. "Тhis is a question of customs officers doing what customs officers have always done - seeing if there are drugs or hidden arms."

The interior minister of Germany, which shares a border with Denmark, said he was "somewhat surprised" by the proposal. Hans-Peter Friedrich declined to comment further, however, until he had a chance to discuss the matter with his Danish counterpart.

"We are determined to make sure that the big achievement of travel freedom in Europe remains unimpaired and in place," Friedrich said. "The goal is always for the Schengen agreement to be strengthened and not weakened."

Austria's interior minister also warned against overreacting.

"The fact is that (we need) a clear yes to circumstance-driven border controls and a clear no to the general raising of borders," Johanna Mikl-Leitner said, as cited by DPA. "What is important is that we should and can continue to use the instrument of circumstance-driven controls and that it must be within the power of decision of single states."

The issue landed in the spotlight in April, when a high-profile spat erupted between France and Italy over the latter's decision to issue permits allowing travel within Schengen to North African economic migrants, following an influx of some 28,000 such migrants.

The two countries eventually asked the EU to reform Schengen so that internal border controls can be reintroduced in extraordinary cases of increased migration.

Under current rules, Schengen countries can reintroduce border controls for up to 30 days in case of threats to public order - with governments typically resorting to the clause in case of major summits or sporting events.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has said that the current regulation "is a little fluffy" and needs to be tightened.

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Tags: European Union, ministers of interior and justice, Brussels, Schengen, agreement, Denmark, European Commission, EC, Schengen Agreement, Schengen Area, border control, Jose Manuel Barroso, Lars Loekke Rasmussen

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