Central Europe and Schengen - can borders be friendly and effective at the same time?

The Visegrad four, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia are worried about their borders. The question is can they put up a friendly fence towards their Eastern neighbours and at the same time be the eastern bastion for what many call fortress Europe?

It's the situation that will arise in a few years time when the new Central European member states become members of the EU's Schengen agreement. This is the treaty which allows border free travel within most of Europe. What sort of fence to build for Schengen was debated among the four Visegrad states at the Institute for Public Affairs in Warsaw recently.

The Schengen Treaty was concluded in 1985 among west European countries, namely Benelux countries, Germany and France to abolish border controls internally and strengthen the controls on the outside borders. It meant free flow of people within the designated area. But it also meant that people entering this area from the outside had to go through stricter requirements in the visa process. The current Polish visa policy towards eastern neighbors has been developed with one main objective in mind: to maintain the number of travellers at the pre-visa level. This was to be served by expansion of Polish consular posts in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, investment in equipment and increasing staff.

The aim was achieved after the first few months so that the exchange of persons and goods has returned to the level characteristic of the period prior to introducing visas. Over one million Polish visas are issued a year to nationals of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine with two-thirds of them given to the Ukrainians who enjoy a fee waiver.

Piotr Kazmierkiewicz, expert in migration and eastern policy program at the Institute of Public Affairs stresses that the Polish example shows that having a friendly eastern EU border is doable.

"Poland and Hungary are the two states that issue the majority of visas for our eastern neighbors. Our country has issued more than 2 million visas since 2003 - to Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians. The majority of EU states is not so quick to issue that many visas and to keep the number of refusals to the very low level of one percent in the case of Poland and Hungary. Well, there are concerns about illegal migration, about competition on the labor market. While in Poland and Hungary we have historical, social and economic reasons for keeping those ties, we are just not afraid, that much, of the impact of free movement. Those countries find themselves in a different situation, as we can see in the free movement of workers already.

"We have a more liberal approach in general. As we were going to introduce visas we built up our consulates, we hired more people, and we would like now to persuade other EU member states that it is possible for them also to issue more visas and that we have been both able to open up our borders and keep them safe."

David Krall is the director of EUROPEUM, a Prague-based think-tank which examines the Czech experience of EU membership. In his view the Czech Republic is also interested in a quick accession to Schengen.

"We have to understand that the Czech Republic is really in a special position here. We are the only, out of the four Visegrad countries, which is not going to have an external border altogether. At the moment we border only on the member states. So, we are in a specific position, which makes us somewhat, I would say, more reactive or passive, you know, in trying to influence this policy. So, I would say, that from this perspective it seems to me that surely for the Czech border control it is more important to integrate into Schengen as soon as possible. But at the same time we are trying to be constructive, in supporting our neighbors in the EU who do have an interest in having some sort of friendly relations with the eastern neighbors, such as Poland, Slovakia or Hungary."

However, there have been serious reservations expressed by Visegrad states about the need and probability of aligning their consular and visa policies towards Ukraine and Moldova. Catalina Barbarosie represents the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, Moldova:

"The general feeling is that we are kept aside, kept on the other side of the border, and it is frustrating. We do not understand why. There are, especially in the past 2-3 years, definite efforts for democratization and we hope that our western neighbors will somehow support our efforts, but we can't see that."

Visa policies of EU member states have to meet two standards: one is free movement and another being security. One of the main problems so far has been the fact that each of these countries had its own policy towards non-EU neighbors. Schengen makes it even more complex because more policies of individual countries have to be compatible with one another.