Europe’s Border Checks Become Economic Choke Points


FREILASSING, Germany – Traffic along one of Europe’s busiest highways, which used to flow unimpeded, now often backs up for miles at a newly installed checkpoint, where a phalanx of German police officers screens trucks and cars for hidden migrants.

At this border crossing, as a result, Austrians who work in Germany have trouble getting to their jobs. Many companies in Germany must wait days longer for deliveries of food, machine parts and other goods. Shoppers who made quick weekend jaunts to Freilassing’s stores now mostly stay away.

“It’s really bad,” said Karl Pichler, the owner of a large gardening center here in Freilassing, whose sales of tulips, rose bushes and other plants has slumped as longtime customers from Austria have stopped coming.

More than two decades after much of Europe began abolishing border controls under the so-called Schengen Agreement, the free movement of people and products between countries has helped transform the European Union into the world’s largest economy.

But as the bloc now grapples with the biggest migration crisis since World War II, the revival of checkpoints on some of the region’s most important transport routes is crimping commerce and threatening to cost billions of euros in lost business just as Europe is recovering from a six-year economic slump.

With no end to the migrant crisis in sight, some national governments are pushing to expand the number of checkpoints around Europe and extend their use for up to two years. The shift is not only straining political and social cohesion, but also threatening the region’s postwar principle of peace through prosperity.

While some calls for suspending Schengen might be political posturing, critics worry that border controls will become a fact of life.

“One after another, we close the borders, and once they are all closed, we will see that the economic cost is huge,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, warned the European Parliament in January.

Of the 28 countries in the European Union, 22 have passport-free arrangements, with Britain as one of the notable exceptions. But the lines are quickly being redrawn across Europe.

Since autumn, Austria, Denmark, France, Norway and Sweden have joined Germany in imposing and extending temporary border checks. Belgium last week temporarily shut its border with France. Fences have gone up on various other borders including ones in Hungary, Serbia and Croatia, and along the Austrian-Slovenian frontier.

European governments and research institutions have started tallying the potential damage.

With 57 million vehicles a year and 1.7 million workers a day crossing Europe’s frontiers, the European Union could face up to 18 billion euros, or $19.6 billion, each year in lost business, steeper freight and commuter costs, interruptions to supply chains, and government outlays for augmented border policing, according to a recent report by the European Commission, the bloc’s administrative arm.

Should the European Union revert to permanent border checks to slow Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi migrants traveling through Greece and the west Balkans toward Northern Europe, the long-term cost could exceed €100 billion, the French government calculated in a separate study.

Open borders drive growth, economic efficiency and jobs, said Vincent Aussilloux, the director of France Stratégie, the French government’s economic planning agency. “That’s what we’d put in danger,” Mr. Aussilloux said, “if we abandoned Schengen indefinitely.”

For Doruk Tumer, a truck driver for a Turkish delivery company, the trip to Germany has become a roadblock-riddled odyssey.

Previously, his route from Turkey and Greece through the west Balkans – a path similar to the one used by nearly one million migrants last year – took about five days. Now, Mr. Tumer said, it can last up to 12 days, while the former two-hour drive through Austria sometimes takes more than a day.

“Time is money,” he said, noting that costs have risen 30 percent because of longer delivery times, higher refrigeration charges for perishable goods and the occasional use of a second driver to overcome delays.

It is not clear that the European Union is ready to shelve Schengen just yet. Officials are seeking ways to secure Europe’s outer boundaries, so that countries within the bloc do not have to seal theirs.

In particular, European officials are pressing Greece, which constitutes Europe’s southern frontier, to sharply strengthen its refugee controls by mid-May. Should Greece fail to comply, border controls like the one at Freilassing could be imposed through 2018 or beyond.

For big companies operating through Europe, the impact has been manageable thus far.

Ikea, the Sweden-based furniture group, said border controls had, so far, not disrupted its European commerce because it has worked closely with transport companies to ensure deliveries.

Amazon, which has 29 hubs in the European Union, is ready to make sure its operations continue “regardless of external factors,” said Roy Perticucci, vice president of the company’s European business.

But in many corners of Europe, border checks are already having a costly impact. At the Oresund bridge, an eight-mile span that carries truck, car and train traffic between Sweden and Denmark, more than 15,000 commuters now contend with two identification checks daily, because both countries are requiring frontier inspections.

The delays are costing the Danish Rail Company, or DSB, €1.2 million a month in lost business as trains are canceled and commuters opt to drive, said Tony Bispeskov, a spokesman for DSB.

This month, the Copenhagen offices of Ferring Pharmaceuticals started providing buses to take employees home to Sweden so they would not have to endure train delays. Weekend shoppers heading from Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden, “have been scared away,” Mr. Bispeskov added.

The Netherlands, home to some of Europe’s biggest exporters and importers, is also feeling vulnerable. While the Dutch have not yet ordered border checks, companies warn that costs would surge if Germany blocked their common border or if roadblocks continued elsewhere.

The Dutch company FleuraMetz, which delivers roses, tulips and orchids to shops elsewhere in Europe and in North America, has already faced backups of at least 12 hours at Calais, France, near the road entrance to the Eurotunnel that links the Continent to Britain.

The company, based in Aalsmeer, sends trucks through the tunnel to reach Heathrow Airport near London for shipments to the United States. At one point, the bottlenecks were so bad that FleuraMetz decided to fly flowers to Heathrow to catch connecting flights, raising costs on deliveries to New York by around 25 percent.

In Germany, at the border near Freilassing, the police said they were working to limit the damage.

“It’s not in our interest to cause huge delays,” said Rainer Scharf, a police spokesman. At the single-line checkpoint, police waved through trucks that bore inspection stickers from Austria, but stopped vehicles containing “people who look Arabic,” Mr. Scharf said.

Today, the temporary border facility looks permanent, with offices and computer terminals, and a soaring white tent sheltering dozens of police officers. So many officers have been sent here that every local hotel is fully booked.

Other local merchants are not faring so well. “Most business in town has dropped tremendously,” said Mr. Pichler, the florist, who worries he may soon have to lay off employees.

Still, Mr. Pichler said, given the influx of migrants to Germany, the border controls are necessary.

“It’s the right thing to do, even if we take a hit,” he said. “We need to get this migrant situation under control.”

(Articolo tratto da The New York Times)