May 13, 2011 11:19 pm

EU rebukes Denmark over border checks plan

The European Commission has struck back at Denmark’s plans to reintroduce border controls, threatening to “take all necessary steps” to enforce existing European Union law on the free movement of people.

In a letter to Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Danish prime minister, Commission president José Manuel Barroso said the situation raised “important doubts” about the legality of Denmark’s plans to step up customs checks on cars coming from Sweden and Germany.

The swift response points to a political determination to stem moves by member states to reintroduce borders in the face of populist-fuelled fears surrounding migration, according to diplomats.

The Danish plan came as part of a wide-ranging political settlement between the government and the far-right Danish People’s Party.

An open conflict between Copenhagen and Brussels could have an impact on Danish politics, where the government is embroiled in tough inter-party negotiations over economic reforms ahead of a general election that must be called by mid-November. There has been speculation Mr Løkke Rasmussen could call a snap election before the summer.

Denmark’s actions have further raised concerns about the future of passport-free travel within the EU, coming only weeks after France bolstered police presence on its border with Italy following an influx of north African migrants following unrest in the region. That episode prompted the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to propose new rules that would allow temporary border controls within the bloc in exceptional circumstances.

But as an enforcer of the European treaties, including the 1995 Schengen accord that abolished passport controls throughout most of the EU, the Commission is now threatening Denmark with legal action.

“As a matter of principle … member states may not carry out systematic intra-EU border controls, whether of goods or of people,” said Mr Barroso. “I would urge you to refrain from unilateral steps in this regard and to engage with the European Commission in an open dialogue prior to implementing any new measures.”

Denmark denied violating EU rules and insisted it would go ahead with the measures in spite of the protests from Brussels.

“We will have a discussion with the Commission, but since we are strongly committed to implementing this in accordance with the Schengen rules I do not see why there will be any problem,” Søren Pind, Danish immigration minister, told the Financial Times.

He said the proposed border checks were aimed mainly at stopping criminal gangs from eastern Europe rather than illegal immigrants, insisting the measures were unconnected with concern in France and Italy.

“We have been caught up in a political melee because the question of border control is very fragile at the moment,” said Mr Pind.

Denmark insists its plan for targeted customs checks is similar to measures already taken by neighbouring Sweden, something the Commission contested on Friday. Anders Borg, Swedish finance minister, on Friday leant his support to the Danish proposals.

“It is good that Denmark wants to take precautions to ensure we have no drug smuggling, cross-border criminal activity, human trafficking or similar carried out between Demark and Sweden,” Mr Borg told Sweden’s TT news agency.

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