Even Germany is acting to strengthen its borders
Freedom of movement, a cornerstone of the European Union, is under threat as countries throughout the bloc scramble to tackle illegal migration. After months of unilateral measures and bitter arguments between central European member states, even Germany — a nation which previously took a leading role in welcoming migrants to Europe — is getting in on the act by putting national border security above Schengen area norms.
Germany will introduce new spot checks on borders with Poland and the Czech Republic in the coming days; cooperation with the Czech authorities was announced after Berlin threatened to unilaterally impose checks “in order to stop smugglers”, but no such co-operation has yet been reached with Poland. Unilateral measures are no longer unusual in the region, though, with various central European states having taken similar steps in recent months.
Germany’s move signals a wider hardening of the EU’s stance — and a tacit admission that freedom of movement is increasingly problematic in an age of mass migration. Also this week, Poland announced new vehicle checks on its border with Slovakia, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declaring that thanks to the checks “no one could accuse us of having a leaky border”.
Weakness on illegal migration isn’t a criticism that many would choose to level at Poland — but such is the potency of the issue that even one of the most openly anti-immigrant governments in Europe is vulnerable to criticism. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz justified his government’s threat to act unilaterally by referring to the “visas-for-bribes” scandal rocking Warsaw, in which Polish officials are accused of handing out visas in exchange for cash at consulates across Asia and Africa. Scholz said he doesn’t “want Poland to simply wave people through and then have a discussion about our asylum policy afterwards”, warning that “further measures may have to be taken at borders”.
The irony of Germany’s criticism is striking given the chasm that has separated the two nations’ rhetoric on migration since the 2015 migrant crisis. For the Polish government, criticisms from Berlin are more than just galling; they’re also seen as an attempt to influence general elections coming on October 15. Morawiecki shot back that “it would be better for you, Mr Chancellor, to inform yourself accurately about the situation and refrain from interfering in Polish affairs”.
The row is the latest instance of hostility between Warsaw and Berlin as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party bets on stoking anti-German sentiment in its election campaign, accusing leader of the opposition Donald Tusk of being Berlin’s stooge. Morawiecki has claimed that Tusk is behind an overblown international portrayal of the visas-for-bribes scandal, saying inspections only uncovered “irregularities involving several hundred visas”, a drop in the ocean in the context of overall migration flows through the EU.
Yet the idea that Berlin could damage PiS’s credibility by attacking it on migration illustrates just how strongly voters’ desire for an illegal migration crackdown is influencing national politics, including in countries that previously espoused openness. Alarmed by the surging popularity of Alternative für Deutschland, even Germany’s Green Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck urges action, claiming “if we don’t want Right-wing populists to exploit this topic, all democratic parties are required to help find solutions”.
The need for a response to illegal migration is becoming a defining feature of EU politics. And with unilateral border action an increasingly popular political gambit even in Berlin, it’s clear that for politicians, being seen as tough on migration is fast becoming a more pressing concern than adherence to the EU’s foundational principle of free movement.