Passport-Free Travel Zone Grows in Europe

Just in time for the holidays, border-crossing restrictions have been eased for some newer EU members

December brought relief to many in the newer European Union states and even more happy smiles on the faces of their ruling politicians as the deal to extend the Schengen area -- just in time for the Christmas and New Year holidays -- was celebrated.

Enlargement of the free-travel zone is a good thing and a sign, as one Slovakian official said, that a division between the older and new EU states is ending. A year ago the situation was very different: there were delays with preparation for the borderless reality, the political atmosphere was gloomy, and there was the looming threat of a postponement by a year or more. It was a very discouraging picture.

That was in part because of a dispute over the law enforcement and border control database shared by European states, known as the Schengen Information System. The secure system was scheduled for an upgrade, to make it easier for the authorities to access criminal records across Europe. But delays in the installation of the new system, or SIS II, threatened to keep the borders up between East and West a little longer.

Then came the Portuguese with a plan to incorporate EU newcomers into an upgraded version of SIS I. Yet at one point the deal looked to be buried because of money. The British, who contribute to the costs of Schengen database system but do not participate in the passport-free zone, objected to the Portuguese compromise. They challenged having to pay for the expansion of the existing system when a new, more advanced one was in the works.

The British also feared that expansion would delay SIS II, which will give the police in any EU country easier access to criminal information throughout Europe. It is seen as an important advance in combating organized crime as well as terrorism -- two major concerns that some older EU states have had about the eastward expansion of border-free travel.

Under the Portuguese-brokered deal, the 4-million-euro cost of expanding the older SIS was to be shared, with the U.K. paying 850,000 euros. Ireland, which like Britain is not part of the passport-free travel zone, also had problems with the compromise.

To allay British and Irish concerns, the new EU states agreed to reimburse some of the costs of expanding the SIS database until they were fully integrated into the new system. The Czech Republic, for example, agreed to pay 100,000 euros to the U.K. and 20,000 to Ireland. Slovakia coughed up 80,000 for Britain and 10,000 for Ireland. The payoff worked, and the deal was done.

The compromise has worked well, and the cooperative sharing of law enforcement and border enforcement information throughout the region is one factor that has helped pave the way for Schengen expansion.

So passport checks at land and rail borders will vanish on 21 December. Cyprus and the newest EU states, Bulgaria and Romania, have not met all the criteria and will, for now, remain outside the zone. Non-EU states Iceland and Norway are also part of Schengen, and Switzerland is expected to join next year.

The British objection to the expansion of SIS I was logical. But it left some serious bad blood between Eastern ministers and the U.K. in particular. How, the Easterners were saying, could Britain on the one hand be a big supporter of enlargement while on the other hand threaten to stall an important step in the EU's expansion? The money involved in the SIS was petty for the Exchequer.

But this is typical EU behavior and the newcomers are still getting to know who their friends are (sometimes) and who aren't (sometimes). Many East European governments have always seen the British as their natural ally because of London's support of enlargement, its decision to open its labor market to new states early on, and a shared ambivalence about giving up too much national sovereignty.

But will the British always support them when they are called to do so and the TV cameras are switched off? That is rather a different story. "The British are entrenched in their national interests and nothing but national interests. If we fall in this category, they talk to us. If not, they don't know us," one Slovenian diplomat said on the fringe of the recent Schengen celebration in Brussels.


Another example is Britain's mum reaction to the Czech government's decision to send its foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, rather than the prime minister to the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon to protest the presence of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe -- a pariah for his human rights record. Prague's announcement that Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek would stay away from the leadership meeting came after his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, said he would not attend if Mugabe was there. Human rights groups and a few other ambivalent EU governments praised the Czech position.

But London didn't say a single word -- at least officially -- to its supporters in Prague. As evidence of the Czech government's disillusionment, Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra asked me if the British representatives in Brussels had "said something about our stance." They hadn't, even when Brown and Topolanek stood next to each other during an EU meeting -- after the Reuters news agency reported the Czech decision to boycott the Africa summit. The U.K. simply didn't need Czech support, so why praise a needless ally?

To follow national interests is perfectly normal in the EU and the newer members are learning that quickly on this and a host of other issues, not the least of which is how to deal with Russia. Interests and alliances can change, especially when big states are involved. Today they are at your side, tomorrow they aren't.

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