In mid-January, when the social democratic Danish Prime Minister Premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt, gets to her feet in the European parliament, her presentation of the Danish European Presidency will likely mark the beginning of a difficult six months for her. The Eurozone and the Schengen Area, two of the EU’s main projects are both caught in the throes of severe crises. And although Denmark is not a major player in either of these [in particular it is not part of the Eurozone], both issues will exert an important influence on the country and on its role in the EU.

We are already involved in the reform of the Schengen Area. As a sop to the extreme right Danish People’s Party, outgoing Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen had agreed to reinforce customs controls on Danish borders, thereby provoking the ire of Denmark’s neighbours and European institutions.

On 16 September, the European Commission finally proposed that any country seeking to temporarily restore border controls should first seek authorisation from Brussels — an announcement that had initially been scheduled for three days earlier, but which had then been magically postponed until after the Danish general election vote.

Schengen and the Eurozone

Instead of asking if this was an intelligent initiative or simply a trick, perhaps we should simply say that it shows how sensitive the Commission is to national debates on such questions. It is also interesting to note the double dealing in the presentation of the Schengen reform. On the one hand, it is made clear that the Danish customs controls are not the starting point for the Commission’s reform project, which is focused on illegal immigration; however, on the other, Cecilia Malmström, the Swedish commissioner in charge of these issues had privately criticised Demark’s dangerous drift towards a return to internal EU borders.

This double dealing highlights two challenges for Helle Thorning presidency. Firstly, although the battle on the issue of borders is mainly focused on illegal immigration in Southern Europe, it is nonetheless inexorably associated with Denmark in the context of the debate on European policy; and secondly, the fact that Denmark, whose last stint at the head of the EU dates back to 2002 when enlargement to the East was the order of the day, is taking over the reins of Europe at a time when the climate is very hostile. Last time around, the main question was how could the EU be expanded to include as many countries as possible.

But with the crises in the Schengen Area and the Eurozone, the question may well be what the criteria are for excluding countries. With this in mind, let’s not forget that the proposed Schengen reform includes one new provision: a country that does not secure the EU’s borders may be temporarily excluded from the Schengen Area.

Difficult renegotiation

This provision, which has been dubbed the “Greek clause” at the Commission, may be deployed against a number of states including Italy, but its main target is Greece’s substandard immigration system — which brings us to the other major political flash point of the moment, the debt crisis in the Eurozone. Not only has Greece has become a symbol of administrative chaos, but it has also come to be associated with a burden of ever increasing debt that Germany and other rich Eurozone countries are reluctant to carry.

On 14 September, when the French president and the German chancellor announced that they had no intention of excluding Greece from the Eurozone, their declaration came very close to backfiring. Let’s not forget that a few years ago, the idea that Sarkozy and Merkel would feel the need to make such a point would have been unthinkable.

Only with the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, did the EU finally equip itself with rules that could explicitly authorise a country’s exit from the EU. But, as it stands, there are no provisions for expulsion of countries either from the EU or indeed from the Eurozone, and no such provisions will be adopted unless Germany, the Netherlands or other countries exert pressure for such measures. If this happens, the Danish Presidency could be tasked with yet another difficult renegotiation of EU treaties.