EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Contrary to the Danish government's claims that Sweden already has customs checks in place of the sort it intends to, the EU commission points out that those are not systematic and therefore legal. Copenhagen is willing to meet with Brussels officials to bring its plans in line with EU law.
"According to our information, Sweden does not have systematic and permanent border checks," David Boublil, a commission spokesman for home affairs said during a press briefing on Monday (16 May).
The Danish government last week announced they will repopulate customs barracks on the borders with Sweden and Germany in a bid to stem trafficking of illicit goods and to track down stolen cars, citing a surge in cross-border criminality.
The "permanent presence" of customs officials and beefed up police presence in the area around the border is a trade off to get the anti-immigrant right-wing Danish People's Party to agree on a broad package of economic measures, such as raising the retirement age and cutting early retirement benefits.
Copenhagen maintains that its envisaged measures are similar to what Sweden already has in place and in line with EU law. But last Friday, EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso sent a letter to the Danish Prime Minister warning that the announced measures may contravene EU law and the principle of freedom of movement of both people and goods.
The reaction came after German officials also slammed the Danish decision as "crazy" and contravening the rules of the border-free Schengen area.
Sweden's own custom controls and video surveillance of cars crossing its borders came under scrutiny last year, when two complaints that the measures were against EU law were dismissed by the EU commission.
According to two letters seen by EUobserver and dating back to 19 July 2010, "we can not find any reason to start infringement proceedings against Sweden for breach of Article 34 of the Treaty on European Union."
One of the complaints concerned the Danish-Swedish crossing over the Oresund Bridge. The EU commission cites information received from the Swedish authorities, which claims that "only 0.1 percent of passenger cars were checked between January and June 2009. Corresponding number of trucks is about 0.4 percent and the buses around 3 percent. The records for February 2010 show at same number of controls."
Yet the reasoning of the Swedish controls seems very similar to the Danish one: to prevent trafficking and smuggling of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
According to Stockholm's risk assessment underlying the introduction of these "random" border checks, drug smuggling and organised crime in relation to alcohol and tobacco smuggling is greatest in the region which includes the Oresund Bridge, with statistics showing that 85 percent of seizures were carried out there in 2008.
"This justifies a relatively high presence of customs officers to prevent the smuggling of drugs into Sweden. Customs officers are not always present at the post," the commission's reply to the complaint reads.
Unlike the German government, the cabinet in Stockholm welcomed the Danish measures. "Of course it is good that Denmark will take measures to ensure that we do not have drug smuggling, human smuggling or anything that is between Sweden and Denmark," Swedish finance minister Andreas Borg told the Danish newspaper Ekstrabladet.
"When I have crossed the Oresund bridge, I have had the perception that the Swedish border works quite well without any serious disruption to individual users," Borg added.
The Swedish minister noted, however, that the Danish plans are not fully clear yet.
A Danish EU diplomat told this website that Copenhagen is willing to iron out the technicalities with EU commission experts, so that the measures are fully compliant with EU law.
The case also highlights the commission's inability to independently verify information provided by the national governments.
In a Schengen reform proposal tabled last year, the commission envisaged on-the-spot checks by independent experts contracted by the commission to verify compliance with EU rules in how member states manage the borders.
The proposal is currently stuck in the EU council of ministers, with few countries - notably France - in favour of it.