Frontier controls

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Long lines have been forming at rail and road border crossings between Germany and Austria.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s reintroduction of border controls with Austria sets a dangerous precedent which could damage businesses across Europe’s free-movement Schengen area.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Schengen Agreement allows free movement of people between 26 European countries.
    • On Sunday, Germany suspended the agreement and reintroduced border controls with Austria in response to the flood of refugees.
    • Schengen rules only allow countries to impose border controls in times of emergency and for a maximum of two months.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Friday evening, into the car and off to the mountains. For many people living in Munich, a drive over the border into Austria at the weekend is a part of life, like beer and pretzels. Most day trippers in recent years haven’t even noticed that they are crossing international borders, as the E.U.’s free-movement agreement, known as Schengen, means they are passport-free.

Likewise, most commuters, drivers and workmen who have to travel back and forth between Germany and Austria, sometimes several times a day, took the border for granted. Only truck drivers really noticed it, because they had to deal with the different road toll systems.

But all that changed on Sunday evening, when the German federal government reintroduced border controls because of the massive flood of refugees coming in from the south. Now, with the miles-long tailbacks on the autobahns and huge lines at train stations, everybody knows exactly where Austria ends and Germany begins.

Tourist may be irked by the slow-moving traffic, but they won’t lose more than a bit of vacation time as a result of the queues. Things look different, though, for commuters and businessmen. For them, the world has changed drastically within a couple of hours. Their freedom of movement is over, short trips have now become infinitely long. Even worse, they have no idea what’s going to happen next.

Businesses may have to restrict themselves to their home region instead of being active in the neighboring country.

If the border officials were to pull out soon, then life could quickly get back to normal again.

But what happens if the government decides to keep the border controls in place indefinitely? Quite possibly, many a worker would have to look for a new job sooner or later, because he can’t get to work anymore on time.

Even more far-reaching, many business models would have to be reconsidered. Businesses may have to restrict themselves to their home region instead of being active in the neighboring country. Locksmiths, plumbers and carpenters, who now have to stand for hours at the border to get to customers, will no longer see the point of leaving their home bases.

That, in turn, will lead to higher prices, because there will be less competition. Moreover, trucking firms will charge for the time their vehicles spend waiting at the borders. Many a hotel and ski lift operator will lose customers scared off by the thought of the controls and the accompanying traffic jams.

Of course, it hasn’t come to that yet and perhaps the border controls will even have a positive effect. Perhaps they will remind people not to take open borders for granted, and start to again appreciate a Europe without frontier barriers.

With luck, economic pressure will rally businesses to fight for the reopening of the borders. The best thing would be if everybody pitched in to keep Europe as free as it was, despite the onslaught of asylum seekers. Only now have we come to appreciate the value of open borders.

 

Members of the Schengen Agreement-01

 

To contact the author: hofer@handelsblatt.com

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