Denmark steps up customs checks at borders

FROSLEV, Denmark Tue Jul 5, 2011 7:55am EDT

A Danish customs officer signals to a driver at the German-Danish border crossing in Froslev on July 5, 2011. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

A Danish customs officer signals to a driver at the German-Danish border crossing in Froslev on July 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fabian Bimmer

FROSLEV, Denmark (Reuters) - Denmark reinforced its borders on Tuesday by stationing more customs officers at crossings in an effort to halt illegal goods which has angered Germany and stirred debate about free travel in Europe.

Fifty additional customs agents were deployed, 30 of them on the Danish-German frontier, 10 at ports with ferry service to Germany, and 10 at the Oresund bridge and a ferry dock linking Denmark to Sweden, a Danish customs official said.

The reinforcements come on top of a customs force of about 160, which will grow to 260 by the end of this year.

Denmark's centre-right ruling coalition, which faces an election this year, agreed with the anti-immigration Danish People's Party in May to beef up border controls, saying it aimed to keep "brutal crime" out of the country.

The plan drew a warning from the European Commission that Denmark risked breaching the Schengen Treaty governing free movement in Europe's 25-nation passport-free area, criticism from Germany and from opposition parties at home.

"It certainly isn't a wish of mine or the city of Flensburg (to have more border checks)," said Simon Faber, mayor of the German border town Flensburg.

"We want more cross-border cooperation and not less," Faber told Reuters. "However I think that the reality will be less dramatic than the consequences."

Faber added that he expected Denmark would adhere to its Schengen commitments and traffic would continue to flow.

Minister for Europe in the German state of Hesse, Joerg-Uwe Hahn, called for a boycott of Denmark by German holidaymakers.

"If Denmark is introducing border controls again during the holiday season, I can only suggest that people turn right around and holiday in Austria or Poland instead," Hahn said in the online edition of mass-market daily Bild.

European Commission spokesman Michele Cercone said in Brussels that the Commission would closely watch the way the first phase of the Danish measures is implemented.

"The Commission expects that the Danish authorities will take all due steps to ensure these measures are in line with the Schengen (agreements)," he told a regular briefing.

Denmark has insisted it is within its rights to step up customs controls aimed at stopping smuggling of illegal goods such as weapons and narcotics and trafficking of people.

"We will carry out the control and implement it in a way that is in full accordance with EU law and international obligations," Erling Andersen, head of the Danish Tax and Customs Administration, said during a visit to the border.

"We see in our risk analysis some risks of drugs coming into Denmark from the ... border to Germany," he said.

Denmark says it is only raising its customs force to a level similar to that of its neighbours, Germany to the south and Sweden to the north, and that the measures will not hinder traffic and do not involve reinstating passport controls.

It says customs officers will only carry out random checks, as they have done previously.

Danish critics of the new controls have said they send the wrong message about Denmark's place in Europe just six months before the country takes over the rotating EU presidency.

"We feel it is against the European idea, which is a borderless Europe," Erik Boel, president of the Danish pro-Europe movement, told Reuters at the border with Germany.

(Additional reporting by John Stonestreet in Berlin, Justyna Pawlak and Rex Merrifield in Brussels; writing by John Acher in Copenhagen; editing by Jason Neely)