The reaction was expected: Denmark introduced passport controls on Monday afternoon for travelers arriving from Germany, reacting after Finland, Norway and Sweden moved to tighten their own border controls to reduce the influx of refugees.
Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen of Denmark justified the measure by referring to the decisions by the other Nordic countries. “We don't want to see people marching on our highways again; law and order must prevail,” he said.
In contrast to the border control measures in Sweden initiated Sunday evening, the Danes will hold only random checks on their border to Germany over the next 10 days. And they will not be conducted by transportation companies, as in Sweden, but by the Danish police.
The measure has came under criticism in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has repetedly rejected calls to end an open-door policy towards more than 1 million asylum seekers coming into the country.
There are also increasing fears that the move by Nordic nations could spell the end of the Schengen system of open borders between most European countries.
We have to react judiciously to the measures in Sweden, Finland and Norway. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister, Denmark
“It can impose a burden in the German-Danish border region, especially on commuters,” said Torsten Albig, the premier of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which borders Denmark.
Mr. Rasmussen said he didn't have any other choice after Sweden and the other Nordic countries decided on comparable measures.
“We have to react judiciously to the measures in Sweden, Finland and Norway,” Mr. Rasmussen said, adding that he had informed Germany's chancellor of the step in advance.
The steps undertaken by Denmark and Sweden can be expected to have a particular impact on Germany. Many refugees who want to travel on to northern Europe are still in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
The heightened checks will make it impossible for many of them to travel farther because they lack proper identity papers. When asked whether the Danish decision could end the Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free movement across much of the European Union, Mr. Rasmussen replied, “I hope not.”
But there will be a problem, he added, if Europe proves incapable of better policing its external borders. He did not exclude the possibility that other countries could follow his lead.
Denmark has repeatedly been criticized for its restrictive policies regarding refugees. The country took in about 20,000 refugees last year, eight times fewer people than its neighbor Sweden. The Danish prime minister emphasized repeatedly that the introduction of temporary border controls does not simultaneously mean that the number of asylum seekers is being reduced.
The Danish decision underscores the shift in Scandinavia, which is closing its borders to get a grip on the influx of refugees. For the first time in more than 50 years, passports are once again being checked at the borders between Nordic countries. The Nordic Passport Union was established in 1954 to allow cross-border travel with no passport.
Since Christmas, Finland has introduced passport and visa controls for passengers on Finnlines sea vessels traveling from Germany’s Travemünde to Helsinki. The measures have been sharply criticized by refugee-aid organizations.
“This regulation excludes almost every refugee bound for Finland from taking the ferry,” the Lübeck Refugee Forum said in a statement in reference to the decision of the Finnish government to allow only passengers with valid documents to enter the country.
The parliaments of all Nordic countries include far-right populist and xenophobic parties. In Finland and Norway, they form part of the governments. Common to them all is the pressure they exert on their respective governments to increasingly adopt restrictive policies on refugees.
The first day of controls at the border crossings into Sweden went relatively smoothly. A police spokesman said many of the 20,000 daily commuters, who mainly travel from Sweden to Denmark for work, were probably still on vacation. On Monday, only eight refugees were sent back to Denmark because of a lack of documentation, he said.
In Germany, meanwhile, Ms. Merkel, the head of the Christian Democratic Union, continues to reject demands by Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, to place a cap on the number of refugees. Both center-right sister parties are majority members of Germany’s coalition government together with the Social Democrats.
On Wednesday morning, Ms. Merkel will preside over a cabinet meeting in Berlin and then head for Kreuth in the state of Bavaria to participate in the 40th conference of the CSU parliamentarians in the Bundestag, Germany's lower legislative chamber.
Mr. Seehofer, who is also the state premier of Bavaria, where most of the refugees have been entering Germany, has demanded an upper limit of 200,000 new refugees per year in the country.
“This is not the position of the chancellor," government spokesman Steffen Seibert said. "We are convinced that a limit of the number of refugees cannot be reached by one state going it alone.”
But Mr. Seehofer's demand is gaining more support, for instance, from Guido Wolf, the CDU's leading candidate for the state premier in Baden-Württemberg. The state is set to hold elections are in March.
“We are in agreement that we must quickly reduce the number of refugees," Mr. Wolf said. "The figure of 200,000 can be a worthwhile goal in this endeavor.”
Mr. Seibert emphasized that the refugee crisis can and must be solved on a European level through such things as solidarity, a fight against the causes of migration and efficient monitoring of external E.U. borders. When asked whether Ms. Merkel will be able to convince Mr. Seehofer, Mr. Seibert said: “The positions are known and as always, the discussions in Kreuth will be open and frank.”
The CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party, the minority member in the government coalition, want to significantly reduce the number of newly arriving refugees in 2016, but without setting upper limits. The Social Democrats increasingly view the dispute within the CDU-CSU, known collectively as the Union, as a burden on the coalition government's work.
“Horst Seehofer has revoked what was already a shaky truce in the Union regarding refugee policies,” Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, the SPD deputy party chairman, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. “Mr. Seehofer can't even say how that sort of upper limit is supposed to work in practical terms. Should it be imposed by force of arms?”
Helmut Steuer is Handelsblatt's correspondent for northern Europe. To contact the author: [email protected]