New EU states react angrily to delay in Schengen enlargement

Foreign Ministers, from Slovenia Dimitrij Rupel, from Hungary Kinga Goencz, from Austria Ursula Plassnik, from Slovakia Jan Kubis and from the Czech Republic Alexandr Vondra, photo: CTK

Central European states which joined the EU in 2004 are hopping mad at delays in extending border-less travel - what's known as the Schengen zone - to include them. It was meant to happen next year but Brussels says technical and legal problems will push the date back to 2008. Some states see political - not technical - reasons for the delay. Genie Johnson reports from Vienna.

Foreign Ministers, from Slovenia Dimitrij Rupel, from Hungary Kinga Goencz, from Austria Ursula Plassnik, from Slovakia Jan Kubis and from the Czech Republic Alexandr Vondra, photo: CTK
People living inside Europe's Schengen zone can cross national borders without stopping and without showing passports. Europeans outside that zone - including the ten countries which joined the block more than two years ago - still have to endure checks. And people trying to visit them from within Schengen are also subject to border delays. Foreign ministers from five Central European countries met in Vienna this week - among them Hungarian foreign minister Kinga Goncz. She said Hungary would be ready on time and so should Europe.

"We will be prepared by the give deadline with all preparation for joining the Schengen zone. And we also mention that it goes beyond a question of infomatics... it is much more a political question... much more a confidence question."

The European Commission says the original October 2007 date is unrealistic. There have been delays in building the system which stores data on stolen vehicles and wanted persons. But Slovakia's Foreign Minister Jan Kubis - says any delay is unacceptable. And suggests some European countries want to delay opening up borders to the east.

"This is not a technical issue. We don't take a message from Brussels that for technical reasons there will be a postponement. For us there is a clear political commitment to our citizens that they can consume their rights as citizens of the European Union. And therefore we will insist on the deadlines as projected in the original plans and we consider that for our citizens there must be an opening to consume all the benefits of the Schengen system as planned in October 2007."

Austrian Foreign Minister Urslula Plassnik, right, welcomes her counterpart from the Czech Republic Alexandr Vondra, photo: CTK
The ministers were in the Vienna for a Regional Partnership meeting. Their strong statements on open borders were directed at their Austrian hosts as much as Brussels. Austria, fearing a flood of cheap labour, has restrictions on worker movement from the former communist countries. Something that rankles with the Czech Republic's Foreign minister Alexsandr Vondra.

"You know the opening of the border is one of those few examples that we can show to the citzens that there are some real results. The explanation about the technical difficulties like the air-conditioning for the computers, in the age when we are sending rockets to the moon, is something that neither myself or the Czech people can understand."

Poland too was pushing for Europe to keep its promise of open borders by late next year. Deputy Foreign minister Barbara Tuge-Erecinska.

"We underlined once again our readiness and commitment to join the Schengen area in October 2007 as it was designed."

European Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini says he's doing his best to minimise the delay. But until Czech's, Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks can move around as freely as other Europeans - this will remain a sensitive issue. And any further delays will be viewed with suspicion Europe does not want to open its eastern borders.