After the governments of both Sweden and Denmark announced Monday new border controls to stem the flow of migrants and refugees, fear is spreading across Europe that the continent’s landmark open border policy will soon be nothing but a dream.
In an attempt to halt the tide of migration at its southern border, Sweden imposed new identity checks for travelers arriving from Denmark, marking the first time since the 1950s that travelers between the two Scandinavian states face such restrictions.
In turn, the government of Denmark, fearful that the new Swedish checks would cause asylum seekers to flock to its borders, swiftly announced the immediate implementation of random checks at its border with Germany.
“We are simply reacting to a decision made in Sweden,” said Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. “This is not a happy moment at all.”
Across Europe there is growing concern that the 26-nation passport-free Schengen Zone is at risk as the dueling crises of war and global warming are driving an unprecedented number of refugees to Europe and elsewhere. Meanwhile, growing xenophobia across the continent in the wake of the Paris attacks has bolstered efforts to shore up previously open borders.
“Freedom of movement is an important principle—one of the biggest achievements (in the European Union) in recent years,” German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer told reporters on Monday. “Schengen is very important but it is in danger,” he said.
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The new border checks are expected to present a significant hurdle for the thousands of asylum seekers who lack official documents. More than three million migrants are expected to arrive in Europe by 2017, according to the European Commission. And in the past year alone, Sweden—which has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU nation—received 163,000 such requests.
Following the announcements, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called an emergency meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the future of the Schengen agreement and future coordination between EU countries.
“This is the main argument we’re hearing these days—that Schengen is over,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, told the Guardian‘s Ian Traynor. The EU leadership says that efforts to destroy the Schengen zone will also end the goodwill and freedom that came with the open border agreement.
“It’s sad to see Europe panicking before 700,000 refugees. This is a sign of weakness,” Mogherini added. “Schengen is different because the temptation to question it comes from inside. First it was the refugees, then terrorism. But what does Schengen have to do with terrorism? Nothing. It has in it the mechanisms that we need also to face these threats.”
The new restrictions follow Germany, Austria, and France, which last year also imposed new border checks. At the same time, the EU’s external border in the past few months has been fortified with guards, fences, and razor wire to deter the more than one million people who crossed into Europe in 2015 seeking refuge.
Meanwhile, refugees are continuing to tempt their fate. On Tuesday, the bodies of 34 migrants, including seven children, were found off the Turkish coast. The refugees presumably capsized in the choppy, winter waters as they attempted to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.
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