Pressure is mounting on Germany to end coronavirus-related border restrictions, with neighboring countries warning that the measures threaten European unity.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer this week extended partial border closures with Austria, France, Denmark, Luxembourg and Switzerland imposed in mid-March to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Some border crossings are completely shut while others are heavily controlled by German police, who deny entry to all but a few, such as commuters and truckers.
Yet as coronavirus infections across the EU are decreasing and countries including Germany are slowly easing their lockdowns, a growing number of domestic politicians as well as European partners are urging Seehofer to change course and lift the border restrictions that stretch across the heart of Europe.
“Apart from the fact that it’s hard to understand why these checks still exist, they have a negative effect on people’s minds,” Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told POLITICO on Thursday.
“Border controls have made a difference and are part of our continued success in containing the [coronavirus] infection” — Horst Seehofer, German interior minister
Just as the EU celebrates its annual Europe Day on Saturday, to honor the signing 70 years ago of the Schuman Declaration seen as the bloc’s foundation stone, Asselborn warned that the border restrictions were leading to a resurgence of anti-German feeling and Euroskepticism in neighboring countries.
“We see the bad side of history rising to the surface again. That affects people, they doubt Europe,” said Asselborn, who wrote a letter to Seehofer on Tuesday demanding an immediate end to border checks.
On the German side, a group of 12 lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) published an open letter to Seehofer late Wednesday, “calling for the immediate reopening of all closed border crossings” with Switzerland, France and Luxembourg.
“After more than seven weeks, there must be an end to wire fences and tollgates in the heart of Europe,” wrote the group, which includes Daniel Caspary, the head of the CDU’s group in the European Parliament, Gunther Krichbaum, the head of the Bundestag’s European Affairs Committee, and Andreas Jung, one of the two chairs of the German-French parliamentary assembly.
Also on Wednesday evening, the Social Democratic premier of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, told broadcaster ARD she saw “no reason whatsoever” to maintain border closures or controls.
But Seehofer stood by his decision on Thursday.
“Border controls have made a difference and are part of our continued success in containing the [coronavirus] infection,” he said in an emailed statement. “There is agreement within the Federal Government to continue the controls initially until May 15. We are holding talks with the federal states and the neighboring countries and will decide next week on how to proceed.”
Germans’ treatment of people from neighboring regions during the crisis has also raised tensions in other ways.
Brigitte Klinkert, the president of the departmental council in France’s Haut-Rhin, told POLITICO of discriminatory measures against French commuters who work in the neighboring German state of Baden-Württemberg but are not allowed to enter German shops or buy food during lunch break.
“That’s unbelievable and unacceptable,” she said, adding that those facing such discrimination were people with a German work contract paying German taxes and social insurance. “It’s going down very badly with public opinion. That’s a bad sign.”
Last week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tried to reassure France following reports of French cars in the state of Saarland being scratched or pelted with eggs, with Germans yelling: “Fucking Frenchmen, go back to your fucking corona country!”
Klinkert said Germany had created a lot of goodwill in March and April by taking in about 140 French coronavirus patients — even paying for their intensive care treatment — when hospitals in France’s Alsace region were at risk of being overwhelmed by the pandemic. Nonetheless, she warned that the continued border checks and discrimination risked squandering that reputation.
“The longer we wait for lifting these measures, the longer this atmosphere will remain ingrained in our minds,” she said. She stressed that France, too, had introduced some border measures and said she had written to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Thursday morning demanding their removal.
Klinkert said she had also raised the issue during a recent meeting of a German-French cross-border cooperation committee, set up under the Aachen Treaty that Berlin and Paris signed last year, declaring that they “intend to facilitate the removal of obstacles in border regions.”
Call for European action
CDU lawmaker Caspary on Thursday urged the European Commission to intervene. Border controls “heavily jeopardize not only the vital daily cross-border exchange, but also threaten the ideal of European unity,” Caspary wrote in a letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, seen by POLITICO.
He added, “I urgently seek you to ensure that the implemented border controls will cease on 15 May 2020.”
Meanwhile at the Luxembourgish-German border, local politicians from both sides announced protests on Friday at midday, local media reported.
Asselborn complained that Germany had even intensified its border controls in recent weeks, despite Luxembourg having fewer coronavirus deaths per capita than Belgium or the Netherlands — countries with which Germany has kept its borders open.
The restrictions affect the Luxembourgish border town of Schengen, where EU countries in 1985 signed the eponymous agreement to abolish internal border checks. On Monday, Schengen put its European flag at half-mast in a sign of protest, saying it would only rise again on Saturday for Europe Day.
“Schengen is known worldwide,” said Asselborn. “When there’s suddenly a police car standing on the bridge where the Schengen treaty was signed, then this hurts.”