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The New Europe

Fortress Europe

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Oana Lungescu presents "Fortress Europe" - and she gives her personal view in Comment.

Stars of Europe

The free movement of goods, persons, services and capital are the are the four freedoms on which the European single market rests. The Belgium-Luxembourg border must have been one of the first borders to be erased in Europe this century, for under a convention signed as far back as 1921 border controls were effectively removed. Then in 1958, The Netherlands joined Belgium and Luxembourg in the Benelux customs agreement. People, goods, services and capital could circulate freely in this new economic space. It was the shape of things to come.

The next big step was achieved in Schengen on the bank of the river Moselle. Schengen, in Luxembourg, is a peaceful place set among rolling hills. It's good wine-making country.

It was here, in June 1985, on the river-boat Princess Marie Astrid that negotiators from the three Benelux countries plus France and Germany concluded an agreement to scrap border controls at their common frontiers. Although it's hard to find Schengen on a map, it does seem like the right place for such an agreement because if you cross one bridge you find yourself in Germany and if you go further down, in France.

At the moment, there is no formal connection between the European Union and Schengen, but 13 of the 15 EU member states are also members of the Schengen agreement. Only the islands of Britain and Ireland have stayed out, retaining border checks at ports and airports.

At the Schengen general secretariat in Brussels, the doors open automatically, a physical illustration of the way border crossings open on the west European mainland. It's not just ordinary citizens that benefit, the acting head of the Secretariat Luc Vandamme says Schengen has also made policing easier -

Luc Vandamme"For example, a car stolen in France, and found the same day in northern Germany, things that were quite impossible before Schengen. Certainly without Schengen and without the collaboration and the exchange of information, the situation for every individual country would be more difficult than it is today."

The brainpower behind Schengen is a central computer called the Schengen Information System. It is a vast database fed by national police forces with information on millions of wanted persons, from terrorists to drug smugglers to illegal immigrants. Police in one Schengen country are allowed to cross the borders of another in hot pursuit of a suspected criminal. The extension of police powers is seen as a price which has to be paid for lifting border controls. Another is paid by non-EU citizens, or, as the Schengen Convention calls them, 'aliens'.

With 8 thousand kilometres of coastline and a record of indulgence towards migrants, Italy has been seen as the soft underbelly of Europe. Germany, which has received 2.5 million foreigners over the past decade, has championed harsher measures to deal with foreigners, but critics of Schengen are already complaining about human rights infringements. Steve Peers, one of the authors of a report on how asylum cases are being determined across Europe, says it's pretty much a lottery -

"Yes, some countries like Belgium are more concerned to give asylum seekers procedural rights. Once they're in the country, it's much harder to be expelled from Belgium. It's often the larger member states that have been the strictest on asylum seekers. In the UK, for instance, certain types of appeals won't prevent you from being expelled. In some countries it's almost impossible to stop yourself from being expelled on an appeal which has a huge practical impact on whether you can make a successful claim for asylum."

The peace agreement in the former Yugoslavia and the more stable situation in Albania have reduced the flood of asylum seekers to around a quarter of million a year. Irritation with western bureaucracy now seems to be the mood in the Balkans, as these comments made by Albanians queuing for hours for a visitor's visa to Italy, suggest -

"I'm 18 years old, I'm preparing to study in Italy. There is no future here."

"The problem is, the Italian embassy doesn't know who is a businessman, or who is going for tourism or to meet with his friends etc…"

"I want a visa for Italy because I want to go to my parents. I will pay my visa if necessary because I want to go to Italy legally not illegally."

Not all visitors wait in disciplined lines. About one million people enter the European Union legally each year, mostly to join their families. But illegal immigration is also big business. Mehmet owns a small hotel in a bustling Istanbul bazaar - a well known meeting-point for people smugglers. A thousand a month are trying to get into Europe via Istanbul alone, he says, and the Turkish police do nothing -

"Of course the police are taking bribes. They know how the business works. When people move, they usually move in large groups, with women and children. It's impossible for the police not to notice that. Everyone knows this starts happening. How can the police not know."

EU governments have repeatedly urged Turkey to act more decisively, but since the snub Ankara received over EU membership, the Turks seem to have turned a deaf ear.

However, the Central and Eastern European countries slated to join the Union can't afford to ignore EU demands. The Schengen agreement was incorporated into last year's Amsterdam Treaty of the EU. Once that's ratified, the new members will automatically join the Schengen area and become responsible for the Union's outside borders. Tough decisions are already being made.

Shengen countries

Schengen states currently sharing open borders

Hundreds of traders demonstrated at the beginning of the year on Poland's border with Belarus and Ukraine. They used to be able to cross the border freely to buy and sell as they wished. But then Poland was told by Brussels that it had to introduce stricter regulations. Eastward enlargement poses a particular challenge to the EU. As the European Justice Commissioner Anita Gradin observes, the collapse of communism has turned many Eastern European countries into havens for organised crime -

"Many of them are used as transit countries. You can see that when it comes to heroin. Afghanistan is the new big producer and the dealers are using the Balkan route to get to Europe. On the other hand, the Eastern countries are producers, for instance of synthetic drugs. The producers in Holland and Belgium are increasing their production by also establishing themselves in Poland, in the Czech Republic, in Hungary."

It's not just drugs. In the port of Riga, British customs officials help their Latvian colleagues detect large-scale smuggling, mainly alcohol and cigarettes. It's one of many projects to help EU candidates fight cross-border crime.

John Thurston is a customs advisor of the Latvian government and was involved in setting up a new intelligence gathering centre in Riga -

"The big problem for Latvia is that it alone cannot fight organised crime. And I think the countries in the EU are well aware that you can only fight organised crime if you share information, if you work together on an international scale. Because that's what the criminals do. And we're stupid if we don't do the same."

It'll take many years before the EU gives its stamp of approval to the new border controls in the east. Some applicant governments are already complaining about the costs involved. And there is the political fallout.

Hungary, for example, could be split from the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania, at least until these two countries make sufficient progress to also join the EU. Romania and Bulgaria share the dubious distinction of being the only applicant countries whose citizens still need visas to travel to the EU. The Romanian foreign minister Andrei Plesu wants his country removed from the visa black-list. But he was rattled earlier this year when Austria urged Hungary to require visas from Romanian citizens in order to limit the numbers of illegals from the east. He commented -

"Theoretically, we are preoccupied by this perspective but we had some very encouraging signs from the side of Hungary itself. So I wouldn't want to be discriminated against, but we have at least the hope that our neighbours and friends the Hungarians will not put us into a difficult position."

The Hungarians have resisted the demands until now. But Ferenc Koezeg, the executive director of the Hungarian Helsinki committee is worried about the authorities' general attitude to foreigners -

"The Fortress Europe idea does exist. Authorities really believe Hungary's only duty is to keep out any migrant, even asylum seekers. They consider all asylum seekers as illegal, irregular migrants. And they don't understand that European practice requires humane treatment of asylum seekers."

For now, Austrian helicopters keep a close watch on the borders with Hungary. Austrian chancellor Viktor Klima has a word of warning - freedom of movement may be a good thing, but not just yet -

"There's some worry in the Austrian population about the enlargement because the average salary in Hungary is only 20% of the average salary in Austria. Today we have a very controlled immigration system and therefore we are always very frank and open in discussion with our neighbour countries addressing transitional periods in specific sensitive sectors, for example free movement of work-force. And we try to inform the Austrian population because today I believe there is more unacceptance than acceptance."

Like Austria, Sweden only joined the European Union in 1995, after a closely fought referendum. The Swedish EUjustice commissioner Anita Gradin heard the same worries then -

Anita Gradin"One of the big black clouds that some saw was that we would be flooded with people from all of Europe, destroying our labour market and all that. Nothing of that has happened. It's one thing that you have the right to move freely, it's another thing if you use it. You know, there is only 1-1.5% movement inside the European Union and I would be very surprised if there was going to be a big change because we are going to have new members from Eastern and Central Europe."

So the idea of Easterners flooding western Europe once their countries join the EU may be a myth. And the idea of a Fortress Europe might also be a myth in an age of increasing globalisation. But they're powerful myths. At the Schengen secretariat, Luc Vandamme is organising a meeting with the applicant countries to start explaining how the Schengen convention will work once it becomes an integral part of the European Union's rules. Otherwise, he admits, Schengen risks becoming a dirty word outside the EU -

"Schengen has never taken care of its own public relations and I think there is a job there for myself and for the Schengen ministers. But I quite agree, yes we need to give information and to explain because otherwise Schengen might become a dirty word."

Back in Schengen, a grandmother is taking the family picture under the European flag marking the place of the agreement. I asked her husband, a 71-year old from here in Luxembourg, what he feels about the EU's enlargement eastwards -

"Well we must see because it is very difficult with all those strange people coming here from other countries. Yes, we must be careful."

But his son-in-law, a 31-year old from Bavaria in Germany, feels eastern Europe should be included in the Schengen area -

"Yes, I think so. Because it was just a political border, between eastern and western Europe; it was not a geographic or economic border. So, I think we have to involve everybody."




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