A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Signs of Unravelling

Europe's new year has started ignominiously – and fears are growing about whether the continent will be able to manage the refugee crisis.

With border checks returning in Sweden and Denmark, and Germany reeling after the mass sexual attacks on women celebrating New Year’s Eve in Cologne, it may well prove that January 4, 2016 will once be identified as the day when the EU’s passport-free travel – and even the Union itself – started to disintegrate.


© REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

My foreign correspondent’s new year’s resolution for 2016 – to travel less and live more – lasted all of two days. Last Sunday I found myself on a plane to Copenhagen to witness the new ID checks put in place on the border between Denmark and Sweden at midnight. Two days later I was in Cologne in the wake of the shocking physical and sexual attacks on women welcoming the new year.

Different countries, related problems: both further dashed hopes that Europe will be able to defuse the growing frustrations and fears of ordinary people in what have become extraordinary times.

On a sunny but freezing morning in Copenhagen I boarded what used to be the direct train to Malmö in Sweden. It now stopped at Copenhagen Airport. When we arrived, we headed up to the station and down to another platform, separated from the Copenhagen train by a provisional wire fence. On the frigid platform of Copenhagen Airport, Danish rail (DSB) has set up 34 security queues manned by 150 private security staff to photograph and store the IDs of around 18,000 people who use this line daily. No ID, no travel.

While I wondered about the legal implications of a private company policing my right to travel in the EU, the train began the second leg of the journey to Malmö. A Swedish woman sitting opposite me was furious at the “stupidity” of measures she says will just inconvenience ordinary people who live in Malmö but work in Copenhagen. About 8,000 commute between the two countries. On my return journey, I got off again at Copenhagen Airport station and met one.

Susan Flygenring, 37, hurtled down the travelator to catch the waiting train to Malmö. Last week she would have made it, but the ID scan robbed her of a few precious seconds; the doors slammed and the train left without her. “This is horrible, I feel like crying, I really needed to get that train to pick up my children,” said Flygenring.

For her and thousands of others, the Øresund bridge was a lifeline and a promise: allowing her to juggle work and family in two different European countries. But the growing tensions migration has put on EU free movement mean, for her, uncertainty about her way of life. “We used to be so free going back and forth between Sweden and Denmark, now we need a passport,” she said. “This isn’t what we were promised.”

On the surface it seems as if Sweden is acting because of an EU failure, but the opposite is the case. This is a failure of national governments meeting in Brussels to do what the EU was set up to do, and what their voters have elected them to do: to solve problems together that cannot be solved alone.

Sweden has stepped up border checks because Stockholm says it cannot absorb another 160,000 asylum seekers, as it did last year, while its neighbors sit on their hands rather than reach a robust, realistic, and functioning burden-sharing agreement. Reimposing ID checks between Sweden and Denmark is a massive blow here, ending half a century of free travel in the so-called Nordic Passport union – a forerunner to the later Schengen zone that offers EU citizens free travel through much of the continent.

It took just 12 hours for Denmark to respond: anxious not to become a dead-end for Sweden-bound asylum seekers, Copenhagen imposed ID spot checks on its border with Germany at noon on Monday and will continue them until next Thursday, with a possibility of extending them or stepping them up to full border controls.

As I left Denmark, I wondered whether January 4, 2016 will be identified later as the day Schengen – and with it the EU – began to unravel. Rather than fly back to Berlin, I took a detour to Cologne. Usually on January 6 the city celebrates its three most famous – if deceased – residents, the Bible’s three wise men. But this time, Cologne was a city of angry, fearful women.

Days earlier, scores of them had been attacked, robbed, and sexually assaulted by a gang of up to 1,000 drunken men gathered between the train station and the cathedral. Police say the attackers were of North African appearance; many were known to authorities. “Suddenly I felt a hand on my bum, on my breasts, I was grabbed everywhere, it was horrific,” one woman named Katia told the Express newspaper. “I was desperate, it was like running the gauntlet. Over the space of 200 meters, I think I must have been touched 100 times.”

Evelin, 24, was with her friends in the square between the train station and Cologne Cathedral at the same time. “I had a knee-length skirt on, suddenly I felt a hand on my bottom and under my skirt,” she said. “I turned around and stared into a sea of grinning faces.”

The reports were terrible, but the police response was worse. First the police issued a statement on January 1 noting a “relaxed atmosphere” in the city the night before. They only changed their mind when confronted with a tsunami of outrage on social media at that gross misrepresentation. The number of criminal complaints filed has now reached 516 – including two complaints of rape. Yet even after they were caught in a lie, the Cologne police made a bad situation worse by denying they were overwhelmed or ill-prepared on New Year’s Eve.

A leaked police report last Thursday suggested otherwise, complaining of officers frustrated at being unable to offer effective protection because they were “at their limit.” Federal police who patrol the area around Cologne train station admitted to me that they are desperately understaffed because around half of their number have been deployed to Germany’s borders.

If people don’t feel safe, they look for someone to blame. Leaving Cologne, I listened to far-right pipers’ demand for “cleaner, safer cities” being shouted at far-left groups. The knot in my stomach tightened.

For months I have been waiting for a long-overdue terrorist attack to poison Germany’s already wavering public opinion of the refugee crisis. But after the Munich terror alerts on New Year’s Eve, the Cologne attacks may achieve the same effect: push insecure and angry people into the arms of populists who accuse the state of being a soft touch with migrants, and the media of airbrushing crimes carried out by non-nationals.

It’s a similar picture in Sweden and Denmark, where mainstream political failures in this time of unprecedented challenge have seen a drift to populist alternatives. These populists are more interested in stoking up hate against immigrants and damaging European integration than helping their vulnerable neighbors – but history shows that this is something insecure people usually only realize when it’s too late.