Cracks widen in Europe's dream of unity
(BRUSSELS) - With Europe's open borders closing, bailouts turning north against south and nations biting back at the Brussels machine, backers of an ever-closer European Union are clearly in for a rough ride.
While a year-long battle to defend the euro rages on, another symbol of European unity is now in turmoil as EU states consider the possibility of restoring border controls within the celebrated passport-free travel area.
Denmark raised eyebrows, and a possible legal challenge, this week when the right-wing government, under pressure from anti-immigrant far-right voters, decided to permanently deploy customs agents to its Swedish and German borders within weeks.
The move came as Europe struggles to find common purpose to deal with thousands of desperate migrants fleeing unrest in Tunisia and Libya.
In a letter Friday from European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to Danish Prime Minister Lars Lekke Rasmussen, the EU executive leader said a first legal assesment of the move "raises important doubts about whether the proposed measures, if implemented in the 'intensive and permanent' way that has been announced, would be in line with Denmark's obligations under European and international law."
"It is unacceptable that states pick and choose things they like from European integration but are not ready to stick to agreements in a responsible manner in a spirit of solidarity," the head of the parliament's conservative European People's Party, Joseph Daul, also warned.
"The major political forces that support European integration must not become hostages to political forces that follow solely their own interest," he added.
Denmark took its decision after France and Italy opened the Pandora's Box over the EU's handling of an influx of tens of thousands of north Africans washing up on the Italian island of Lampedusa in search of a better life in Europe.
A bigger, if less politically visible problem, exists on the south-eastern fringes with the Greek border, a magnet for migrants from Arab lands seeking to benefit from visa-free access to Turkey from many Muslim partner nations.
Despite the relevant European Parliament committee insisting that Bulgaria and Romania are better-placed to manage their borders than many existing Schengen member states, states are blocking their entry.
Europe's solidarity has already faced a tectonic test of wills since a relentless debt crisis brought Greece, Portugal and Ireland to their knees, raising fears over the very survival of the single currency.
EU economic affairs commissioner Olli Rehn said this week he was "extremely concerned" about the "divergence" between the wealthier northern European states and their southern neighbours struggling with high deficits and debts.
"There is political fatigue in central and northern Europe about supporting the countries in trouble; there is reform fatigue in southern Europe about carrying out the necessary reforms," Rehn said.
"We need to build bridges over these divergences in order to save Europe, and we need to make the necessary decisions to avoid another, even worse crisis and to enable the whole of Europe to recover from this extremely serious financial crisis that we have experienced in the last years."
At the heart of this malaise sits the EU's institutions in Brussels, with the European Commission facing off with big nations trying to limit the EU executive arm's role in order to keep the capitals on the driver's seat.
Even historically staunch EU supporters like Germany are increasingly irritated with the commission and want to stop giving more powers to Brussels.
"After World War II, the construction of Europe was carried by an enthusiasm among states unthinkable today," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told foreign journalists in Berlin this week.
The chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, Gunther Krichbaum, said the influence of the European Council, the body representing EU states, will inevitably grow in the years ahead.
"The Council will become the top chef and the Commission the waiter," he said.
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