Soldiers on The Border

As the EU Expands Schengen Boundaries, Austria is Proceeding With Caution

News | Darko Gacov, Gabriele Ablasser | November 2007

The Bundesheer, here on the Danube, will continue to patrol the borders with Hungary and Austria’s other neighbors, even after the Dec. 21 Schengen Expansion. (Photo: Christian Fischer)

The December 2007 expansion of the Schengen "open-borders" zone to nine new member countries is worrying the European Union. In Austria, the eastern outpost of the "old EU," tensions are high and plans have been announced to maintain a military presence along its border at least through the Fall 2008.

Austrian Interior Minister Günther Platter and Defense Minister Norbert Darabos are at work on a new concept to legitimize the 1,900 soldiers assigned to assist on all border controls after the Schengen expansion. "The larger part of border police forces should remain there as well," Darabos added, in a release on Wien International, the city’s English-language press service.

This has caused great frustration in neighboring Hungary, in particular. Austria is vehemently against giving sole responsibility for border control to Hungary, leading Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány to protest the implied lack of trust. It is a case of "injured pride," he told the Austrian daily Der Standard on Sept. 20th.

Austria has "excessive self-confidence," he challenged, suggesting that Hungary should give Austria a taste of its own medicine and place military controls on its side of the border.    "How can I explain that even though we are Schengen members, our Austrian friends still want to monitor us?" Gyurcsány said. "Should we do this in reverse?"

But it’s not just the border with Hungary.

And of the other countries scheduled to enter the zone by the end of the year – Estonia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia – several, principally the Czech Republic, have expressed discontent.

According to the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), it is a widespread belief in Central and Eastern EU Member States that the truth behind the postponement of the expansion is not technical. Rather, free access to travelers from Eastern Europe is not viewed favorably within the old Member States.

The Czech permanent representative to the EU, Jan Kohout dismissed the Commission’s arguments as "simply strange."

"Schengen is a political project. Technical problems are secondary", Kohout told the EU website EurActiv on Sept. 28. "Many of the old EU members simply lack the goodwill to solve the problem and the newcomers are receiving second-class treatment. We have a kind of fortress Europe, with a separate first floor for Schengen countries, and a citadel for the countries in monetary union."

The Schengen Agreement is named after a small town in Luxembourg where it was signed in 1985 by Germany, France, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. The Agreement provided for the gradual removal of identity checks on internal zone borders as well as the efficient cooperation of the police and the battle against organized crime. Today, the zone includes all old EU member countries except Great Britain and Ireland, and the non-EU countries Norway and Iceland.

The expansion was initially set to take place in October. However, this date has been moved back several times, for what have been called "technical issues," relating to the revamped Schengen Information System (SIS) in Strasbourg. The new date is Dec. 21.

The SIS database tracks criminals on the run, stolen cars and records information on who enters and exits the Schengen zone. Its original version has reached its capacity of 18 countries, requiring an SIS II system with the capacity to record and share data from the joining countries. Adapting to the SIS database is a prerequisite for joining the zone.

The frustrations reflect the disappointment of neighbors that have had historically close ties. Some feel the good relationship between Austria and Hungary particularly, which remained meaningful throughout the communist era, could be seriously damaged – especially considering parallel issues like the pollution of the Raab River by Austrian companies and the energy giant OMV`s interest in taking over the Hungarian oil and gas company MOL.

The Austrian government insists it seeks to further its close ties with Hungary, although it sees the opening of the border as a mixed bag.

"From here on, we will have to assign the police predominantly in these border areas. The Schengen expansion is a great opportunity for Europe, but at the same time, a challenge," Austria’s Darabos told Der Standard (Sept.21). In a Sept. 25 article on Wien International, however, Darabos stressed that military assistance on its borders serves to maximize the country’s security, rather than to show "distrust of our neighboring States."

The need for security stems partially from a confidential EU report published by Financial Times Deutschland on Oct. 10, which found that all members set to enter the Schengen zone this December continue to have problems in sufficiently securing their own external borders. "Many of the European Union’s newer members must overcome shortcomings in border management ahead of their planned entry to the EU’s passport-free zone in December, a confidential report has warned. Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia were among the countries alerted to problems in controlling their land-frontiers. For example Hungary needs to review the way in which people from neighboring Croatia enter." In addition, the report criticized Hungary, saying that it had to improve technology and staff expertise "to conform to strategic and organizational requirements."

Hungary is undeterred. Foreign Minister Kinga Goncz dismissed these concerns, saying that "Hungary can easily eliminate any shortcomings in its border security system by December when it is scheduled to join the Schengen travel zone" (MTI News Agency, Oct. 11).

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik realizes how important the expansion is for Hungarian citizens, and sees it in Austria’s own interests to overcome borders with their neighbors: "We want this common place of freedom, security and justice with our direct neighbors – in the interests of our citizens and our common security," she was quoted by an original text service of the Austrian Press Agency APA on Oct. 11. "I am counting on being able to welcome our Hungarian partner as a Schengen Partner within this year."

Brussels expects Austria to end its military borders mission once they are opened to the new Schengen members. European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security Franco Frattini confirmed that Austria’s plans were unknown in Brussels, but this has not been expressed in the official statements of Austria’s authorities.

It is not clear whether Austria’s official statements truly mirror its real intentions or if they are merely a diplomatic effort to neutralize Hungary´s and the Czech Republic´s increasingly negative feelings towards its old friend.

However, whatever the written terms of the Agreement, fundamental differences can arise in the interpretation of the treaty goals.

This was made clear by comments by Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus in a lively debate on the topic among the leaders of the Visegard countries – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Due to a mistranslation of "borders" as "barriers," it became apparent that the four countries had differing visions of what Europe was supposed to look like: "Hungary for instance would like a Europe without borders. The Czech Republic and Slovakia would prefer to retain the borders but remove the barriers," Klaus said on Radio Prague in October. "That impromptu debate clearly defined where we stand in this respect."

Not all of the joining countries feel threatened by Austria´s plans. "We don’t have a problem with [signing an agreement to deploy joint controls]," said Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak to The Associated Press on September 18. "We’ll be happy to guarantee security to the Austrians. There’s nothing like good neighborly relations."

However, the divisions within the EU have already had negative effects, even on non-EU members like Ukraine, where a recent EU reported that citizens see the expanded Schengen borders as a "new Iron Curtain."

The meeting of EU interior ministers, which takes place in early November, may resolve some of these issues, along with a joint government conference betweent Austria and Hungary later in the month, that could help the two countries come to terms with their individual needs of security and respect.

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