Burning bridges
October, 11th 2007

Planned expansion of the Schengen area provokes anxiety across Europe

FEW actions seem more at odds with the European dream than demolishing bridges to the neighbours. Yet that is what Slovenia has been doing along its border with Croatia. It is part of the preparation for the eastward expansion of the Schengen area, to take in nine new members, due at the end of the year.

First signed by five countries in 1985 and incorporated into European Union law in 1997, Schengen aims to scrap internal border controls. This necessitates common visas, more police co-operation—and firm control of the common external border. Since this is the only line of defence against migration or smuggling, expansions of Schengen tend to set off scare stories about the porousness of new borders.

Until three years ago, the Schengen area consisted of “the EU, minus two, plus two”. Of the 15 EU members, Britain and Ireland were out; but two non-EU countries, Norway and Iceland, were in. When ten new members joined the EU in May 2004, all were committed to joining Schengen in full. But they had to prepare beforehand, which has required a lot of changes.

Policemen have had to be trained to take over border controls from the army. Checkpoints have been improved with night-vision gear and ground sensors. Would-be members have also had to link their databases to the Schengen Information System, which tracks criminals on the run and stolen cars. Problems in making the system accessible to new members provoked complaints that the old ones did not want them in. But nine countries (all bar Cyprus) are now plugged in, and should get the nod to join by Christmas.

The scare stories have begun on cue. The loudest have come from the Austrian interior minister, Günther Platter. He wants to make up for the dismantling of border controls with his eastern neighbours by setting up military checkpoints within Austria. Czech and Hungarian politicians are miffed by this lack of trust, though Mr Platter’s real concern is Slovakia. Its short border with Ukraine cuts through thick forest and the Carpathian mountains, and is seen as one of the weak points in the new Schengen.

Monica den Boer, dean of the Police Academy of the Netherlands, thinks worries about new borders tend to be exaggerated: those aired when Italy and Greece joined Schengen, in 1997 and 2000 respectively, turned out to be unfounded. If anything, she says, security is likely to improve because police officers will be able to co-operate better across borders.
Yet even Ms Den Boer concedes that some concerns are justified. She is not thinking of the nine countries joining this December, nor of Switzerland (another non-EU member) and Cyprus, which plan to join during 2008, but of Bulgaria and Romania, which hope to join in 2010-11. Low pay and widespread corruption may make their border patrols prone to bribery.

The biggest concerns are east of the new Schengen border. Unofficial crossings, such as the makeshift bridges between Croatia and Slovenia, are being closed. Checks at official crossings will be intensified, prolonging queues. Worse, visitors will need a Schengen visa, which can cost as much as €60 ($85). “For people from Ukraine, who can now travel to Poland free, the visa fee will be a major obstacle,” says Orysia Lutsevych, director of Open Ukraine, a foundation to promote east-west exchanges.

Some new Schengen members want to ease entry requirements for their eastern neighbours. The EU has frozen visa fees at €35 for travellers from the Western Balkans. Yet Ms Lutsevych notes that many people in Ukraine perceive the Schengen border as a new Iron Curtain. If the EU wants to keep its eastern neighbours happy, it may have to build more bridges, rather than burn them.