Security Fears as Borders Vanish: Passport-Free Travel from Estonia to Portugal

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On December 21, nine new EU countries will join the border control-free group known as Schengen. Preparations have been underway for months, but will European security suffer?

The German-language media has reached consensus: As of December 21, the day that nine additional European Union members join the passport-free travel regime in Europe, Germany is in danger. "No More Checks on the Border with Poland and Czech Republic," screamed one tabloid headline on Tuesday. Articles about the possibility of a rise in crime abound in Austrian papers. Graphics showing the dark threat from the east are everywhere.

Europeans, in short, are worried. On Friday, for the first time ever, Germany and Austria will no longer have passport checks on any of its borders except on the frontier with Switzerland. Nine new countries -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Malta -- will officially become part of the Schengen Agreement, the European treaty that allows for border-free travel. Switzerland will, in 2008, join Norway and Iceland as non-EU members of Schengen. As of this weekend, travelers can go from the easternmost tip of Estonia all the way to the Atlantic coast in Portugal without encountering a single border official (airport checks are to remain in effect for the first few months of 2008).

Yet as worried as many seem to be at the prospect of Eastern Europeans moving freely through the Schengen zone -- named after the town in Luxembourg where the agreement was first signed in 1985 -- European Union authorities emphasize that law enforcement is ready for the expansion.

'More Secure than Before'

"Many people are afraid that crime will increase," Markus Beyer, a spokesman with the German Interior Ministry, said. "But experience tells a different tale. When Schengen first started in the 1980s" -- between Germany, France, and the Benelux countries -- "there was a fear that crime would spike at the border with France. But none of the fears came true. If all the preparations work, then it will be more secure than before."

And the preparations have been immense. For years, Europe has been working with new members to make sure they fulfil a long checklist of requirements before entering the Schengen zone. Communications training has been paramount as has integration into the Schengen Information System, a highly automated system which guarantees that if a person is turned away by a Polish frontier official, a Maltese border guard will see the red flag should the same passport be presented at the airport in Valetta. Training has even extended to language skills and the fine art of dog handling.

Much of the training has been coordinated by Frontex, an EU agency tasked with improving collaboration among Schengen states. While the organization is quick to point out that, ultimately, border security is the responsibility of the individual member states, Frontex does its best to show the way.

"Risk analysis is the core of our activities," Ilkka Pertti Juhani Laitinen, the director of Frontex, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We assess and analyze the situation at the borders and then inform the member states about our findings in an effort to get them to adapt their border patrol activities accordingly. We also help them launch joint activities."

The location of Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, Poland is a clear indication of where the EU thought problems would develop. And Laitinen admits that illegal immigration from the east -- particularly the so-called "Eastern Route" from Central Asia via Russia and Ukraine to the eastern land borders of the EU, with a particular weakness in the mountainous, eastern border of Slovakia -- remains a challenge. But Frontex has been most active in the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. Laitinen's group came up with a blueprint for joint operations there that were ultimately carried out by Schengen member states. "The numbers of those coming to the Canary Islands dropped by almost 70 percent," Laitinen says. "That has been perhaps our biggest success."

Frontex is also in the process of creating Rapid Border Intervention Teams. Laitinen says they will only be used for truly exceptional cases, like the 2005 influx of refugees from Lebanon to Cyprus. The day-to-day of human trafficking, drug smuggling and illegal immigration will continue to be dealt with by standard border officials.

Slower than Anticipated

Help comes from the Schengen Information System. Based in Strasbourg, France, the SIS is a major element in nabbing those who would do ill within Europe, storing over 20 million bits of data, much of it dealing with lost or stolen passports, swiped vehicles and crime suspects. Every Schengen border guard has instant access to the database -- and 20,000 inquiries are sent in every day. A new system, called SIS 2, will ultimately include biometric data such as photos and fingerprints as well, though development has been slower than anticipated.

"We assume that criminals won't stop just because they see a tollgate at the border," says Interior Ministry spokesman Beyer. "Cooperation is a much more effective way of combating crime than a barrier in the middle of the road."

Schengen states are still allowed, under certain conditions, to perform border controls on internal frontiers. Germany, for example, resumed border checks during the heightened security surrounding the 2006 World Cup. For the most part, though, once you're in, you're in -- a situation that Frontex boss Laitinen points to as a weakness in the regime. "Border control," he says, "is a very effective instrument and it gives police the right to check people just because they are crossing the border. Without that, it makes crime fighting much more challenging."

The EU, though, has done what it can to meet that challenge and has sent tens of millions of euros to help Slovakia secure its eastern border with Ukraine. Indeed, until earlier this year, many thought that Slovakia wouldn't be allowed in with this expansion wave due to border shortcomings. Now, while there is no barbed-wire fencing, cameras dot the border, with one peering through the wilderness every 185 meters (610 feet) or so. When it's foggy, they switch to infrared mode. Mobile teams are prepared for last-second operations. Frontex has also created a communication channel between border technology firms and guards in the field to improve the surveillance products available.

'Borders Are Hard to Manage'

Countries themselves, though, are ultimately responsible for patrolling borders. Laitinen points to widespread misconceptions about his group. Many imagine Frontex speeding through the waters of the Mediterranean nabbing illegal immigrants before they reach European shores, or trekking through the snowy border regions to the east. In reality, the group has a 2008 budget of just €71 million and has no equipment of its own.

"We don't have any powers other than making plans and asking for cooperation," says Laitinen. "I would definitely feel more comfortable if I had my own assets that I could use."

Some, though, feel that expanding Schengen actually increases security. Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the London-based Centre for European Reform, points out that cooperation with countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Russia will only increase now that Europe's border free zone buts up against them.

"Borders are hard to manage. All you can do is boost cooperation with colleagues on the other side of them," Brady told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Opportunities for criminals expand in parallel with those for legitimate business. That's just the way the world works. My feeling is that we do not have to worry about anything as far as security goes."

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