Brussels retreats from battle over passport checks

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Brussels backed away yesterday from a threat to take Britain to the European Court of Justice next year for failing to abolish passport checks on incoming visitors from elsewhere in the European Community.

'We are not interested in legal struggles that lead us to nothing,' Martin Bangemann, the European Commission member with responsibility for the the single European market, said.

Last spring he circulated a document in which he warned that Britain would be taken to court unless the Government ended all frontier checks on EC citizens.

Successive British Home Secretaries have agreed that all EC citizens should have the freedom to enter and leave Britain at will. However, they also insist on the right to check passports to prevent outsiders posing as Europeans.

Such a basic check, according to the Government, is compatible with the free movement of peoples laid down as one of the aims of the 1985 Single European Act.

The British insistence on continuing to check passports is linked to suspicions in London that other EC countries are too lax in policing their external borders. Ministers have raised the prospect of hordes of illegal immigrants using the abolition of border checks to gain access to the Community by flying to less vigilant countries and then entering Britain undetected from there.

Several other European countries have effectively abandoned passport checks at their EC land borders. Civil servants have claimed that were Britain to follow suit, it might have to introduce a national identity card or spot checks in the street.

Yesterday, Mr Bangemann put forward the idea that governments could continue to ask visitors to 'wave a passport' as a possible compromise, playing down the fact that it is what Britain has asked for all along.

He announced the concession after the approval of a new progress report on steps towards the single market, at a meeting of the 17-member Commission. The paper was deliberately vague: it says that unless a set of common rules on external frontiers, immigration and other issues could be agreed upon, 'the abolition of controls may not be able to take place in satisfactory conditions'.

But senior Commission advisers said yesterday that this form of words actually means Britain may keep the checks that it wants.

The decision is likely to be greeted with dismay by civil rights lawyers, who supported the Commission's earlier position, despite the fact that it might have led to the introduction of a national identity card in Britain.