Is the EU dictating immigration law?
Friday, 08 August 2008

A recent European court of justice ruling accentuates Denmark's continuing battle with immigration and integration

Jakob Illeborg

Once again, immigration takes centre stage on the Danish political scene. Denmark has one of tightest immigration policies in the European Union and this time it is a ruling by the European court of justice that has kick-started the row. The court ruled last week that the Irish government should not prevent spouses of EU citizens who are not themselves EU citizens from living in the Republic of Ireland.

The court found that the 2006 regulation introduced by the Irish government is in breach of a 2004 directive on freedom of movement for EU citizens, a core principle of EU citizenship. The verdict means that non-approved asylum seekers will have the right to settle in any given EU country if they are married to an EU citizen, and "all" it takes to get married to a non-EU citizen is to go to another EU country, stay there for a few weeks and then return.

While Denmark is far from being the only country affected by the verdict, the political and media reactions in Denmark far outweigh those of other member states – immigration issues have been front-page stuff all summer. Denmark is not alone in disagreeing with the court: the UK and nine other EU countries agree in principle with the Danish government. In response to a query on the issue, the Home Office said:

The decision goes against the spirit of the directive which is about free movement for EU nationals and we were one of 10 member states supporting the Irish position. All member states will be carefully considering the judgment and its implications.

It would appear, however, that there is precious little time for careful consideration in Denmark. The Danish integration minister, Birthe Roenn Hornbech, is in the eye of a political storm that encompasses the whole centre-right government. The ruling party is under pressure from its political backer, the Danish People's party (DPP), to take the court's decision to the EU demanding exceptions from the ruling for Denmark. Pia Kjaersgaard, the leader of the DPP, is demanding that Denmark retain the power to dictate who is to get a residence permit, not the EU: "our party is demanding an influence on EU matters. We should tell the EU and the court that we and only we control matters of immigration in Denmark", Kjaersgaard said. According to a recent poll, more than half of Danes agree with her. Centrist politicians are busy trying not to loose ground to the ever more popular rightwing nationalists and both the government and the social democratic opposition have issued warnings to the EU and in particular the EU court of justice, which is claimed to be far too politically active.

Immigration and in particular the integration of Muslims remains high on the political agenda in Denmark and there are votes to be lost by not adopting a hard line on foreigners and immigration. The nationalistic political climate has let to a situation where Denmark's immigration service has (probably) knowingly differed from EU directives. Although the integration minister admitted this week that the government had been caught napping, there are likely to be serious political consequences both domestically and on the European scene.

As European law takes precedence over national legislation in such matters, the member states have to follow the court's ruling in applying national immigration policy and in Denmark this may prove tricky indeed. The government has been relying on the support of the DPP since 2001; the rightwingers have to a large extent been dictating immigration policy and are in no mood to let the government apply EU directives to the letter. This leaves the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen with an unenviable choice: confront the EU (and sacrifice a planned top job in Europe), or oppose his political backers on the domestic scene.

The heated debate in Denmark speaks loudly about the Danes' continuing unease with immigration and its multi-ethnic society, but it also throws up a potentially wider European problem of sovereignty on delicate matters such as immigration and the active integrationalist role of the European court of justice.

Jakob Illeborg is a London based Danish freelance journalist and correspondent.

Comments Add New
Write comment
  We don't publish your mail. See privacy policy.
Please input the anti-spam code that you can read in the image.