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 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.
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