European Commission backs off earlier threats of a delay until 2008
Implementing countries shown in black; countries interested in joining in 2007 in dark gray; non-Schengen countries in light gray.
The Czech Republic will enter the Schengen border-free zone a year from now, following the European Commission’s (EC) recent reversal of its earlier decision to postpone entry for new European Union members until well into 2008.
“This means that Europe will soon no longer be divided into two parts,” Interior Minister Ivan Langer told reporters Dec. 5.
Fifteen countries currently make up the Schengen zone. By the end of 2007, passport checks at Czech border crossings will be eliminated. By March of 2008, checks at the airport will stop.
That means people arriving in the Czech Republic from other Schengen countries can freely enter without passports. The enlargement of the zone will also include Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta.
Langer said countries were able to avoid the EC’s original postponement, announced Sept. 11, because they joined forces in a massive lobbying campaign.
Originally, Brussels announced the postponement over fears that newer EU members had done little to fully implement an updated border security system, known as the Schengen Information System II, which is required for membership in the zone. But newer members suspected that political, rather than technological, factors were behind the delay.
SIS II operates as a huge database with some 15 million names, nationalities, birth dates and criminal records. Citizens in the zones carry special identification cards that can still be checked at borders.
In the Czech Republic, attention now shifts to the preparations in the coming year as the system comes online. It will cost about 200 million Kč ($9.5 million), and Jana Matějusová, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, said that the system will be ready ahead of time, next October.
During the past two years, in anticipation of joining the Schengen zone, the Interior Ministry has been slowly reducing the ranks of Foreigners’ and Border Police (FBP). There are currently 6,500 people staffing those forces, down from the 7,000 the Interior Ministry says is optimal.
This year alone, 140 officers have left the force voluntarily — though officials won’t chalk that up to job insecurity relating to Schengen entry.
The FBP size will be reduced further, with about 600 officers expected to join the regular police force in different locations around the country next year.
Just what effect this will have on illegal immigration is difficult to say.
Thousands of workers from new member countries, particularly Poland, where unemployment is especially high, have flooded the labor markets of West European countries like England and Ireland since 2004. In England alone, some 400,000 East Europeans have found work following EU membership.
Now, it will soon be easier for workers in the East to move West.
But officials are downplaying the likelihood that more open borders will result in a influx of immigrants, especially illegal ones.
“We don’t expect that becoming a part of the Schengen zone will cause an increase in the amount of illegal immigrants here,” Matějusová said.
Naďa Černá contributed to this report.