At midnight on January 3, Sweden reinstated ID checks for those crossing the border from neighboring Denmark. Twelve hours later, the Danish government announced the reintroduction of border controls at its southern border with Germany.
It is hard to overstate the symbolic value and political significance of these measures. The five-mile-long Öresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden was a physical manifestation of a borderless Europe, in which people from 26 different countries could move freely. Now travellers, many of them daily commuters, have to stop, for the first time in half a century, before going on their way.
The refugee crisis, it seems, has changed the standards of acceptable European behavior. Almost five years ago, at the start of the Arab uprisings, Denmark briefly flirted with the idea of border controls, only to be met with opprobrium from the rest of Europe. The move marked “a very worrying threat to the essence of EU integration,” the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said. “We can’t jeopardize here and now what we have developed in decades for the benefit of all EU citizens,” Guido Westerwelle, then the German foreign minister, said. The measure was rolled back the very same day that a new Danish government took office in October 2011. But today closing frontiers has become routine.
Even Germany, which was hailed for welcoming Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, has started to rethink its previous openness. As early as September, Germany had reinstated temporary border checks. In mid-October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a historic visit to Turkey and struck a deal, endorsed by the whole EU, aimed at addressing the flow of migrants through the so-called Balkan route. The centerpiece was a readmission agreement, through which migrants unlikely to gain asylum in Europe would be returned to Turkey.
Anyone travelling across Germany these days cannot overlook the extent to which these policy choices have transformed the nation and its self-perception. Berlin used to be rather dismissive of the plight of southern Europe with Mediterranean migration. But the current crisis has ignited an unprecedented level of mobilization in government and civil society, and has awakened the volunteer spirit of the population at large. As Merkel has relentlessly told Germans, “Wir schaffen das”—“We can do this.” But critics have grown louder, even in the chancellor’s own camp; and the disturbing incidents on New Year’s Eve involving apparent asylum seekers harassing women in Cologne and other cities may well spell the end of Germany’s new Willkommenskultur.
Perhaps even more worrying than the sudden changes in European discourse is the willingness of European states to unilaterally change facts on the ground. Decisions are taken nationally, and, as happened in the recent Swedish and Danish measures, EU institutions are simply presented with a fait accompli. The root of the problem is that the EU has been behind the curve in addressing the refugee crisis. The most striking example was its scheme to redistribute refugees (some 160,000 when the agreement was made in September) across EU member states. At that point, Germany alone had already welcomed some 800,000. As of early January, EU countries had made a little over 4,000 places available, and a mere 272 people had actually been relocated. “At this rate,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, the program “will take until 2101.”
The EU has been particularly torn about its own outer borders. There is no dispute that, in order to save free movement of people in Europe, Europe’s external borders need to be protected. The question is how to do it: recent proposals include turning FRONTEX, the hapless EU border agency, into a full-fledged European border and coast guard. But some European capitals have been reluctant to give up sovereignty on such key national prerogatives.
The unwillingness to cede border control to the EU is the starkest example of Europe’s existential crossroads. On the one side are the forces that see citizens’ security as best attained by the removal of trade and travel barriers. On the other are those who believe that security is better attained by keeping sovereignty in national hands and by reversing supranational integration. It is ominous that the second option now effectively occupies the center stage in many European countries. Euroskeptics and populists are no longer fighting against facts, since the refugee crisis has realized some of their wildest predictions.
But renationalizing European politics does not necessarily entail a militarization of borders and securitization of the state. It must also mean that Europe’s political center has shifted. For the regional project to now succeed, that ground must be reclaimed. That is what makes the German experience in the refugee crisis so consequential. At a time when EU institutions appear in disarray, it can rekindle the forces of Europe’s liberal ideal from the bottom up—a task that has now been made harder than ever.