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24th Jan 2020

Investigation

Revealed: little evidence to justify internal border checks

  • The border between Austria and Italy is heavily-patrolled (Photo: Alice Latta)

The European Commission says it carefully reviews notifications by countries when they reintroduce border checks at internal borders.

They say they weigh the balance between proportionality and the necessity.

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But those internal notifications, now obtained by EUobserver by a freedom of information request, provide little-to-no evidence to back up their claims of terrorist threats and migratory pressure.

EUobserver has obtained the notification reports to the European Commission from Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Norway dating from 2016 to mid 2019.

Some cite publicly-available reports by EU agencies under the commission's aegis as further reasons to impose the controls. Others even appear to contradict assessments made by others.

Norway, for instance, notes the number of "illegal border" crossings into the EU have dropped, as have asylum applications. But Austria meanwhile says the crossings from the Western Balkans are actually on the rise.

Those Balkan crossings have indeed increased to around 10,000 so far this year, almost double from last year but way below the 130,000 mark in 2016. And in 2015, it was 764,000.

Europe's greatest achievement

The commission has for years demanded an end to the practice of imposing internal border controls, over fears it could dismantle the borderless Schengen area, spanning 26 member states.

The commission cannot, however, veto a member state's decision to impose controls. But it can issue opinions.

"We are not here to impose, we are here to convince," said Dimitris Avramopoulos, when asked while still commissioner for home affairs, if the commission had ever objected.

"If Schengen collapses, it will be the beginning of the end of Europe as we know it today, so politically I understand that all governments understand it," he had also warned.

It is a familiar trope repeated over the years but to little avail.

The initial plan was to have all temporary internal border checks lifted by the end of 2016, yet the latest raft of controls were extended this November and well into next 2020.

Similar statements were made by the new commission on Tuesday (10 December) - noting EU states should instead make better use of more efficient border police checks rather than just imposing internal border controls.

Although border controls have been imposed on-and-off since 2006, the reasons behind them shifted dramatically following the large inflow of people seeking international protection in 2015.

Ever since, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Norway, have repeatedly imposed controls over perceived terror threats. So too has France but under reasons specific to its protracted state of emergency.

They also cite so-called secondary migratory movements where people travel from one state to another.

Amid political pressure from Germany, the commission had also revised the rules allowing the extensions to go on longer than originally intended for reason's linked to terrorism.

Today, Germany is the only country that makes no mention of terror threats in its notifications when justifying border controls.

At one point, the EU even mulled kicking Greece out of Schengen altogether.

But a closer look at the notifications themselves also poses questions how the Commission is able to judge "proportionality and the necessity" when states provide no hard evidence.

'Still blaming Greece'

Austrian border control notifications in April 2019, October 2018 and April 2018 make scant effort to substantiate their claims.

All three notifications are also almost identical. The 2018 notifications differ slightly because of the Austrian EU presidency. They say the checks were also needed at the time to protect events attended by people from the EU institutions.

All blame Greece for loose external borders with Turkey, migratory pressure and smuggling on the Western Balkan routes, and a spike of arrivals from Turkey into Greece.

In 2018 they cite a "belief" that Islamic state fighters will pose as refugees.

The tone changes in 2019.

In April earlier this year they say "terrorist groups continue to attempt to establish refugee and migrant routes to bring people to Europe who are preparing terrorist attacks, commit or participate in such an act."

Aside from the collapse of the Islamic State Caliphate, no evidence is provided to back up the claims.

While Austria makes more assertive claims on terrorist groups posing as refugees, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service in the notification sent by Denmark also in April this year only describes it as a possibility.

"In a number of cases in Europe, terrorist attacks have been planned in one country but executed in another. We have also seen examples of this kind of attack planning against Denmark," also cites the Danish authorities.

It gave almost identical reasons in October and April 2018.

Norway, on the hand, points out in its April 2019 notification that number of irregular migrants arriving in the country is low. It also says the number of "illegal border crossings into the EU continues to decrease".

Despite those developments, it believes the overall risk of terror "remains acute" and cites the Frontex risk analysis report for 2019 as a reason to maintain controls on ferry connections to Denmark, Sweden and Germany.

The same Frontex report for 2018 was cited again in its notification sent in April and October that same year.

But in April 2018, Norway had provided a more specific example.

"As far as the PST [Norwegian Police Security Service] knows, there are on the short side of 40 Norwegian-affiliated foreign terrorist fighters in Syria or Iraq," it states, fearing their return could end in terrorism.

But this example then disappears from all its follow up notifications.

Sweden, by comparison, draws out its reasoning in letters that are just over one page in length. And its notifications sent in January and April 2019 are also almost identical.

They too indirectly blame Greece for not shoring up external border controls. And both claim the 7 April 2017 terrorist attack in Stockholm as reason to maintain controls.

That attack had been carried out by a 39-year-old rejected asylum seeker from Uzbekistan who had been in Sweden for years.

Which leaves Germany. Berlin provides the most figures and facts when compared to all other notifications. It is also the only one that makes no mention of terrorism or a threat of terrorism.

Instead, they say in their April 2019 notification that an average of 950 people per month from November 2018 to February 2019 are crossing into Germany from Austria.

They note an additional average of 600 people per month refused entry on the German-Austrian land border over the same period.

"During the same period, the number of identified smugglers in the German-Austrian market amounted to 220," they say.

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