Border controls vs. things that actually work

As some may recall, the late Danish government caused a bit of a spat with both the European Commission and with our German neighbours this last summer when it announced that “border controls” would be “reintroduced” at the Danish-German border as well as in the larger ports. This idea was part of a compromise between the liberal-conservative coalition government and its political allies in the far right populist Danish People’s Party; the DPP agreed to support the otherwise relatively unpopular government proposal to scrap an early retirement scheme (da: efterlønnen), in return for measures that would appeal to the party’s highly Euro-sceptic voters.

As anyone (except apparently the Danish government itself) could have predicted, the Commission did not think that was a particularly good idea – partly because of significant legal issues with the Schengen rules, but also because the announcement came right in the middle of a mid-sized conflict between Italy and France involving the immigration status of a few thousand refugees from the civil war in Libya. Nor were the Germans particularly thrilled, both because the whole ‘European integration’ idea is a pretty big thing in Germany, but probably also because much of the DPP rhetoric ran along the lines of “evil foreigners coming in from the south”, i.e. from or at least through Germany. So people got annoyed and words were exchanged. The DPP leader essentially called the German ambassador a Nazi. And the Germans, well, they retaliated by making fun of the Danes (they do that a lot, but we don’t realise it, because most of us are not very good at German. But I digress).

It did not help that apparently no one was quite certain what the agreement between the government and the DPP actually entailed. Different translations of the agreement text circulated. While the government tried to play the whole thing down as just a slight increase in random customs checks (which would be in line with Schengen rules), the DPP presented it as practically a repudiation of the Schengen treaty, with permanent border check points and new police-like powers to the customs authorities. The reality turned out to be somewhere in between; the permanent border points would be constructed and the customs force at the border would be significantly increased, but they would not do police work, and any checks would still be temporary and random. The whole thing was expected to cost about DKK 120 million (€ 16.1 milion) over ten years, which especially considering the general emphasis on austerity of this year’s budget was a fairly substantial amount of money.

DPP party leader Pia Kjærsgaard: Not happy

As it happened, the new border controls had a mercifully short lifespan, as the liberal-conservative government was voted out of office in a general election on September 15 and replaced with a new centre-left government, which scrapped the whole project as one of their first points of business. So everything went back to status quo ante and everyone was happy (except the DPP, of course).

The story doesn’t quite stop there, though, because there is a bit of an interesting epilogue to it. As we all know, the media love to analyse the results of such high-profile projects after they go away; do a bit of ex post facto analysis, as it were. And as it turns out, the project did not score very high on its stated objective of catching foreign criminals. In fact, precisely zero border-crossing criminals were caught (obligatory poor Google translation) during the three months of increased border controls – and that’s not because Danish Tax and Customs Administration are in any way incompetent, far from it; it’s simply that the chances of actually catching any criminals with random checks at the border are extremely remote no matter how you go about it.

That point is driven home even better by comparison with another initiative that aims at countering cross-border crime within the Schengen area. Since February 2011, the Danish border police has operated a special investigative unit which foreign police forces can approach when they arrest individuals suspected of having committed crimes in Denmark, and which can coordinate the investigation, extradition and prosecution of such cases. The Danish newpaper Politiken reports (obligatory poor Google translation) that to date 45 criminals have been extradited from abroad and successfully prosecuted,103 criminals arrested in Denmark have been successfully prosecuted based on investigations by the unit, and another 41 individuals are under investigation or in custody awaiting trial.

The lessons of this are pretty clear. Having however many customs officers standing around at the border carrying out random spot-checks might be useful feel-good politics for the Euro-sceptics, but in terms of actually countering cross-border crime, it does nothing except waste a lot of manpower and money. The only thing that actually works is intelligent cooperation and coordination, both among the domestic police districts and internationally with police forces in other Schengen countries.

Fortunately, we already have European institutions to facilitate such cooperation, currently in the shape of Europol and Eurojust, and perhaps in the future through an actual European Public Prosecutor’s Office as envisioned in Art. 86 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. But unfortunately, at least for us in Denmark, our full participation in the work of those agencies is significantly complicated by our Justice and Home Affairs opt-out dating from the 1993 Edinburgh Agreement. It is therefore more than a little ironic that the Euro-sceptic Danish People’s Party preferred wasting money on useless border controls, rather than supporting a repeal of the opt-out, which would allow us to actually participate fully in those effective measures that have been established by the European Union.

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