The Czech Republic on the road to Schengen

Photo: European Commission

Even though the Czech Republic became a member of the European Union on May 1, border restrictions will remain for another three years. Entry into the Schengen system, which was originally planned for 2006, had been delayed until October 2007.

Photo: European Commission
The Schengen Agreement, originally signed in 1985, entails dismantling state borders, therefore establishing the freedom of movement of goods, services, labor, and capital. It was incorporated into the framework of the European Union with the Treaty of Amsterdam, which came into force in May 1999. Today, Great Britain and Ireland are the only EU member states that have decided to retain control of their own borders.

The Head of the Schengen Cooperation Unit at the Czech government, Mr. Jiri Celikovsky, confirmed for Radio Prague that the initial plan of the Czech entry into the Schengen system in 2006 had been extended as a result of extensive preparations that are necessary in order for the Czech Republic to be included in the unique computer network system containing information about wanted persons and stolen objects and vehicles.

"The entry into Schengen depends on the creation of the second generation of the Schengen Information System. The planned deadline is gradually being postponed, and today it seems reasonable to believe that the Czech Republic will be able to join the Schengen system in 2007."

Schengen membership is of key importance because it is one of the cornerstones of the European Union, facilitating the implementation of the Single Market. In addition, the EU is enthusiastic about aiding the new member states on their way towards Schengen also because it is crucial for the security of the entire territory of the EU.

The Head of the Representation of the European Commission in the Czech Republic, Mr. Christian Bourgin, explains:

"The Czech Republic is in a special position because, except for the airport, they have no proper external border. All their borders are with members of the European Union, which means they are dependent, except for the airport of course, on the other countries, and I mean here the new EU member countries which are not yet members of the Schengen. That means in practical terms Poland and Slovakia. The Czech Republic depends, partly, on the protection which these countries will ensure with external borders. To become a member of the Schengen Agreement, you must make sure that your external borders are sufficiently protected, against illegal immigration, against illegal trafficking. Schengen can only function well if the external borders are well protected, well controlled."

"The main problem seems to be accommodating various demands made by 25 member states,"

says Jiri Celikovsky from the Czech government Schengen team.

"While this cumbersome process is scheduled to be completed in April 2007, the actual Czech entry into the Schengen system will be preceded by 6 months of the so-called evaluation procedures conducted by the EU. They are supposed to examine the readiness of the new members to take on the responsibility for the security of the entire Schengen area."

In the meantime, the new EU member states need to meet the high level of security standards as set out in the Schengen Agreement. This is technically very complicated and demands not only time and significant financial support, but also cooperation among all levels of government.

However, this transition period will also bring advantages to Czech citizens. As Mr. Celikovsky explains, although the borders will remain in place for another three years, travel has already become easier.

"Some important changes are already visible, such as the removal of customs controls, the ability to cross borders without passports and enjoy preferential treatment in the EU lines at airports, as well as the implementation of a new plan which allows for a single border control."

Mr. Bourgin of the EU Representation in Prague highlights the importance of the Schengen membership for normal functioning of the EU, and the commitment to the Czech entry into the Schengen system:

"We have already helped the Czech Republic in preparing for Schengen. I mentioned it's a protection of an external border, but it's also police cooperation, making sure that illegal immigration or crime do not expand, the fact also that there must be a common approach to asylum, immigration, and visa. We have provided already in the last four years more than €15 million, which means something like CZK 500 million, to help the Czech Republic in preparing for Schengen. I think that is the proof and the expression of the interest we have in the Czech Republic joining Schengen. I should add the interest is because it's not only for the Czech Republic itself, but it's also for the citizens of all the other member states."

Czech entry into the European Union, and subsequently into the Schengen system, will not leave foreigners living in the Czech Republic unaffected. However, the real freedom of movement for nationals of non-EU countries will begin only with the abolishing of border controls and entry into Schengen.

The preparations for entry are so important and extensive, that the present members of this system themselves spent ten years just getting ready. The Czech Republic began with preparations in 1998, so the current plan for entry in 2007 seems reasonable.