Grosbliederstroff When Helmut Kohl got emotional, he remembered how he pulled out the barriers at the French border as a teenager: “It was clear to us that there should be no borders in a united Europe and above all not between Germany and France . ”
At some point, the audience could no longer hear this story: the borders with France had long been open, people lived and worked on both sides of a border line that had become irrelevant. So why ride around on a topic that history seemed to have done?
Are you kidding me? Are you serious when you say that. On Sunday, March 15, 2020, the Saarland Prime Minister Tobias Hans announced that the border with France and Luxembourg would be closed the following morning. There are exceptions for commuters.
The federal police control all immigrants. This was justified with an alleged risk to the health of Saarland by French from the Grand Est region. The states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate acted similarly.
In the following days, the regulations were tightened up, with a few exceptions all transitions were blocked, bridges blocked. To date, nothing has changed in this regard. The federal police controlled seven of around 40 crossings in Saarland, all others were made impassable with solid material. If you still want to cross the border, you have to pay a fine of 250 euros.
Crossing the border is “misdemeanor”
“Both governments intend to facilitate the removal of obstacles in border regions in order to implement cross-border projects and to make everyday life easier for people living in border regions,” write Berlin and Paris in the “Aachen Treaty”, which only came into force last year is.
Today, crossing the Franco-German border has become an “offense”. Seldom has a binding contract been treated as quickly as if it did not exist. The German officials say that they have coordinated their approach with France. A big lie.
“Unless the one-sided reference to the border closure is seen as a form of coordination between the two governments,” says Christophe Arend, French MP for the Macron party “La République en Marche” – not without sarcasm. If the name Arend falls in conversation with German officials or diplomats, they take a deep breath.
Arend annoys her, he is one who does not want to submit to the new border regime. Just like his German colleague Andreas Jung from the CDU or the mayor of Saarbrücken and many of his colleagues, such as the Franco-German Chamber of Commerce: they are all committed to lifting border barriers. In vain.
Apart from minor adjustments, a meeting of the mixed Franco-German committee at the end of last week did not bring much. “The representative of the Federal Ministry of the Interior persisted in his position,” reports one participant.
French are locked out
You can turn back so quickly in 2020, which was a matter of course for decades. Saarland’s interior minister Klaus Bouillon explains: “Border protection is human protection.” Every rejected Frenchman means a little more security for the Saarlanders.
Nobody from the state or federal government whistles him back, apologizes for the outrageousness of collectively defaming our closest friends in Europe as dangerous virus carriers.
The whole thing now takes on such surreal traits that one wonders whether all of this is real. A visit to the border shows that it is a reality. What happens there sometimes looks like absurd theater, sometimes like a dangerous game with fire.
Helmut Kohl would have a lot to do today. Europastraße 29, one of the most important connections between France and Saarland, is closed. Shortly before the Saarbrücken district of Güdingen there are white and red barriers.
The French are helping to be locked out: A police car with three officers from the Police de l’Air et des Frontières stands in front of the barrier. We ask them if they have a lot to do. “No, no one here tries to get to the other side.” Are you in contact with your German colleagues? “No more, we just sometimes wave to each other from a distance.”
The “Friendship Bridge”
The federal police and customs control two kilometers further, at the “Friendship Bridge” between Grosbliederstroff and Kleinblittersdorf. A good dozen officers stand around four team cars. They have all been seconded from Lower Saxony. A young policeman turns bright red when we say that there are quite a few in a small space for a small pedestrian bridge. “This is usually not the case, we just met by chance, otherwise there is only one car here.” The others quickly move away.
The officials confirm that the French can only cross the bridge if they are commuters or urgently need to see a doctor. What do you think of your commitment, isn’t it absurd to reject the people who are our closest partners? “I know officially and also from private contacts that on the other hand, a lot more people are infected than here, so it makes sense to close the border,” says the young policeman, who just had a red head.
In reality, the neighboring Moselle department is not the focus of the epidemic. It’s about 200 kilometers south, in Mulhouse in Alsace. But facts don’t count much anymore when you practice symbol politics. And closing borders is symbolic: no virologist or epidemiologist still believes it makes sense today.
A woman comes across the bridge from the French side. She lives in Grosbliederstroff, but is German and works in a doctor’s office on the German side. It can move freely, but its French neighbors cannot. She finds this unusual, but understandable: “There are still too many French people shopping in Germany.” As a resident of the alleged risk area, doesn’t she pose as great a risk as a French person? “I have to go on now.”
That is the striking thing about this thinking that turns friends into jeopardy in a jiffy: quite a few people take it up. Some were so enthusiastic that they called the neighbors “dirty French” in the first days after the border was closed, provided with the request: “Go to your shitty Corona country!” Cars with a French license plate were scratched or thrown at eggs.
“These were unfortunate individual cases,” says Stéphane Mazzucotelli. He lives in Grosbliederstroff and has been working for the daily newspaper “Le Républicain Lorrain” for a long time. There have been cases where French people have been badly insulted.
But these were exceptions. What worries him more is the discrimination against French workers. Firms like the auto parts supplier ZF and the auto company Ford in Saarland had told their French employees that they were not wanted while the Germans were already working again. ZF published a press release last Friday: Now the French are welcome again.
Mazzucotelli is surprised at the tenacity with which the interior ministers on the German side hold on to the border closure. “We all know that a virus doesn’t keep to its limits.” He used to be in Germany every day. The connections are so coordinated that he can often get faster to another French location via Saarland. That is no longer possible today, now he has to make big detours.
Will the unilateral termination of the open border leave its mark? “I don’t think the friendship between the two countries will suffer,” says the Frenchman. Curious: Many French are trying to de-dramatize what is happening. As if they could use it to banish the spook.
Concern about Franco-German friendship
So also the Mayor of Grosbliederstroff, Joël Niederlaender. “I’m not worried about the Franco-German friendship,” he says. But the closure of the border “shocked him, especially since the reasoning is very questionable”.
He felt that the relationship had deteriorated. Some compatriots would have even said to him: “It will start again as in 1939/40.” But the Netherlands wants to see the positive: “We also achieved the reopening of the Friendship Bridge because we put pressure together with our German friends, including MPs have campaigned for this at the Federal Minister of the Interior. ”
Saarland is not alone in its harsh politics. Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate have also closed many border crossings. But the economic and human connection there is not as close as that between Saarland and the Moselle department. Over 200,000 cross-border commuters from France work in Saarland. “Some hospitals would not work without the French,” explains Antonia Koch, who has been reporting on Saarland, France and Luxembourg for Deutschlandfunk for years.
With their purchases, the French provided around a third of the demand in the shops in Saarbrücken. “In some places you didn’t even know where the border ran because it no longer mattered,” says Koch. Now you know it again.
Some people learn quickly. In Baden-Württemberg there was a poster shop: “You can shop with us with confidence, we are free of French and Swiss,” reports Mazzucotelli, but quickly adds: “An awkwardness.”
Maybe more. In the green and black governed state, you can see how smoothly a mechanism of discrimination can be set in motion. French cross-border commuters who work in Baden-Württemberg are allowed to enter.
Fine up to 1000 euros
However, if you want to shop in a German shop on the way home, “there is a fine of 200 to 1000 euros,” explains an employee of the Baden-Württemberg Interior Ministry. The police receive information “from the market managers or from people who see a French license plate”.
The close partner becomes a stranger, which you report to the authorities: that’s what you call informer, right? The official can be said that he is uncomfortable. He is annoyed that what is happening is sometimes absurd. He is alone in the field when it comes to the interior ministries.
Fortunately, we have the Federal Foreign Office, whose DNA includes promoting French-German friendship. And Foreign Minister Heiko Mass (SPD) comes from Saarland, so he knows exactly what is at stake. Anyone who expects him to appeal for the reopening of the borders will be disappointed: there is none. He is fully in line with the Home Secretary. What is behind it?
The Federal Foreign Office takes a trick, it expresses “under three”. That means: it explains its position orally. But you can’t write that. Let’s just say so much: the office knows why. Because what we get to hear has little to do with Genscher, Fischer and Steinmeier’s policy on France and Europe.
The French government is acting in a similarly discreet manner, albeit for completely different reasons. Neither the Élysée nor Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian nor Minister for Europe Amélie de Montchalin want to comment on the one-sided German border policy.
Please open it
Somehow understandable, because the relationship with the federal government is already sufficiently tense. A Macron consultant only says: “We never gave the illusion that it would make sense to close internal borders in the fight against the epidemic.” At the end of last week, Le Drian is said to have called Maas on the phone and asked him to lift the border closures and controls as Armin Laschet did in NRW compared to Belgium and the Netherlands.
“The fact that Germany closed the border with France and Luxembourg really shocked me,” says Thierry Daman, a Luxembourger who has worked for the EU for a long time. “This is symbolically, historically and politically worse for Europe than Brexit.”
One of the bridges to Rhineland-Palatinate is less than 50 meters long. On the other side is Roth an der Our, German Ur. “Ten kilometers from there, in Moestroff, the first Luxembourg man fell in the night of May 9-10, 1940, killed by German soldiers,” Daman recalls.
He often brought friends to this bridge, crossed them with them, “to show what Europe is”. Today the transition is closed. But borders close uselessly, just show that the other is made “dangerous” again.
The interior ministers and their followers want to demonstrate their ability to act. The populism of the virus from the west helps them do this. They calculate that France and Luxembourg are grinding their teeth and that Germany does not have to pay a political price.
They create a precedent: tight borders. Germany can put the chair in front of its closest partners. This attitude of creating perfect facts is the real cultural break. Laschet, Jung, Arend, the mayors – there are many who stand against it because they are sensitive to what is risked: the policies of Adenauer, Brandt, Schmidt, Kohl and Schröder, which are not jeopardized for short-term benefits .
More: The restrictions in France are much stricter than in Germany. But the prospect of an early restart worries the French.