EU insists Schengen area is ready to expand but doubts remain

By bne IntelliNews July 31, 2007

Dominic Swire in Uzhgorod, Ukraine -

Interior ministers from 14 EU states insisted on July 20 that the expansion of the borderless Schengen area would go ahead as planned from next year. The announcement came just days after reports that several "old" EU members might not be ready to use the new law enforcement software that will enable this area to be widened; however, the real question is whether some of these new members are actually be up to the job.

Speaking in Bratislava following the meeting, Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak told reporters that because the original timetable for implementing the software is still valid, "there is no reason to postpone the deadline for the entry of individual countries in Schengen."

Ukraine border town Chop

The SIS One4all software will enable border police to link up to the Schengen Information System, a large security and law-enforcement database. Originally a new version of the software, SIS II was intended to be used, but delays in its development threatened to derail the plan for the new members to join in 2008, so a compromise decision to extend the use of the original software was agreed.

If all goes to plan, nine of the 10 EU members that joined the bloc in 2004 - the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Malta, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - from January 1 should be part of the Schengen zone and abolish internal EU border controls. Cyprus, which also joined the EU in 2004, was not included because of failing to meet EU requirements. Airports within these nine countries are set to follow suit and drop the need for passports for internal travel in March 2008.

However, newswires reported that a number of "old" EU members may not be ready to use the new software that will enable member states to share a database of immigration information. The countries cited were Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands. And there has been criticism of the progress made by these new members too, most of it directed towards Slovakia and its 97-kilometre border with Ukraine.

Bordering on the impossible

Although shorter than any of Ukraine's other borders, the land between Ukraine and Slovakia consists of dense forest and mountainous terrain with precipices and overhangs that make it one of the most difficult borders to police in Europe. Coupled with the fact that Ukraine is home to the fourth largest number of migrants in the world at 6.8m and it's easy to see why the area has become a haven for human trafficking and smuggling.

Slovakia certainly has its work cut out to protect what will soon form part of the EU's eastern flank. After a slow start, the country seems to be making progress and this summer reopened the Vysne Nemecke border crossing with Ukraine following a €1m reconstruction.

Almost as big as an aircraft hanger, the orange and blue brick customs building is certainly impressive, with two huge wing-like roofs sweeping down either side above the lanes of cars - recently increased from two to five - which are stopped and checked by guards. It's at this point that vehicles are scanned by a high-tech camera that can detect hidden human bodies or contraband.

However, despite all the investment, many remain unconvinced the new border crossing will have much effect in stemming the tide of immigrants from the east.

Statistics from the Slovak Bureau of Border and Aliens Police show that 2,554 illegal migrants crossed from Ukraine to Slovakia in 2006, compared with less than 600 illegal crossings into Slovakia the same year from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and the country's airports combined.

Of course, the statistics are only able to reflect the amount of people caught. What is worrying is that many believe this number represents just a fraction of the real number of illegal immigrants crossing the border.

"About 80% of those that try to cross Slovak border illegally make it," reckons Viktor Dzondza, a local government official from the nearby Ukrainian border town of Uzhgorod.

Part of the reason, according to Dzondza, is corruption. "Border guards in Ukraine earn between $300-400 per month," he says. "It's not much money - they should get more - yet many of them own large houses and new cars far beyond their means."

The temptation for Ukraine's border guards to earn money on the side is great. Last year, two Ukrainian guards were arrested when attempting to illegally transport seven people across the border; and recently the chief of customs at the nearby border town Chop turned down $100,000 to work for a criminal gang, local press reported.

Such lack of funding is evident on the Ukrainian side of the Vysne Nemecke crossing. With old wires and rusty strip lighting hanging from the ceiling the checkpoint looks more like a derelict petrol station than a final security post before entering the EU.

If the EU is ever going to shore up its new borders to the east, as well as improving its own border patrols, the bloc must look at the quality of security in neighbouring states. This is something that new buildings and computer software are unable to do.

Aside from the corruption aspect, there are many who doubt that the governments of the region are really committed to totally stamping out illegal immigration given the growing labour shortages as many of their workers move west.

Poland is experiencing a severe labour shortage as its economy booms and it has to build huge amounts of new infrastructure for the Euro 2012 football championships. The most visible signs of this shortage of workers are the rapid increase in salaries - wage growth in June was 9.3% in annual terms – and a falling unemployment rate, which, at 13% in June, marked the first time in years that Poland does not have the highest unemployment in the EU.

However, Mandy Kirby, an analyst with the consultancy Global Insight, disagrees, saying it's primarily skilled labour that these countries need, not blue-collar workers. Moreover, being seen as capable of managing borders is of the utmost importance to the new member states.

"They would not want to risk being disbarred from the Schengen zone for failing to police it properly," says Kirby. "Their argument would be that the EU had failed to provide enough in terms of training and funds in this case, but they have lobbied for so long to prevent further delays in the extension of the zone that this would not be particularly convincing."


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