As one door opens another one closes on dream of border-free Europe

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THERE WAS a most "interesting" seizure at the frontier last week, said Adrien Wicart, director of customs for Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie." Very interesting indeed . . . You know what is . . . merde?"

A lorry carrying 26 tons of Dutch chicken shit had travelled down the motorway from Holland and on through Belgium, arriving at the French border, just north of Lille. Luckily for the people of France, Mr Wicart's men were ready and waiting at their border posts. "We stopped the lorry. They had permission to dump 20 tons of it over here. But they had six tons over the limit, you understand? So we sent it all back," said Mr Wicart, flicking his hand in disgust.

France is fighting a tough battle on its northern frontier to keep out all the shit its neighbours want to dump across its borders, and since the election of the new centre-right government, this battle has been portrayed in increasingly strident terms.

The people are concerned for their security and their environment. Apart from the problem of agricultural and industrial waste there is a steady increase in drugs, arms, contraband cigarettes, not to mention the illegal immigrants. Without checks at frontiers this clandestine trade would be far worse, say the French. "We have to remember the problems of Algeria too," said Mr Wicart, suddenly, summoning up the vision of Islamic hordes swarming into France along with the chicken shit, black market strawberries and Dutchmen with cannabis hidden in the heels of their shoes.

France's determination to maintain its border controls is threatening one of Europe's most treasured ideals: the free movement of citizens across borders. After nearly 10 years of talking, the so-called Schengen group of seven European countries agreed last March to lift their internal frontiers, ahead of a planned relaxation by all countries in the European Union.

To compensate for the lifting of borders between the Schengen states - Germany, France, the Benelux countries, Portugal and Spain - the group set in place stronger checks on people arriving from outside its external borders. But now the ideal is being put into practice, Schengen is turning into one giant neighbours' dispute.

First France angered Belgium by refusing police the right of "hot pursuit" - one of the quid pro quos of the treaty. Belgium says criminals are committing cross- border crime and then escaping back into France. The Dutch then reintroduced passport-checks at Schipol airport due to confusion about which passengers should be checked and which not.

Ten days ago France announced its intention to maintain border checks for at least another six months, accusing the others of failing to implement their external checks efficiently, and attacking the Dutch for their lax policies on drugs.

Then on Friday, Luxembourg - the state which hosted the first meeting of the group at the small town of Schengen - announced that, in retaliation, it would re-launch border checks on its frontier with France.

Nevertheless, the European Commission, will this week launch proposals for lifting internal frontier checks throughout the EU, a commitment which it claims is already written into the treaties. Britain, which has always refused to lift its controls, will of course, repeat its "No". But, this time, it might not be alone.

France once used to extol the virtues of a citizens' Europe in which neighbours would cross back and forth in an atmosphere of Arcadian goodwill and respect. If the single market in goods and services was to operate efficiently, there must be free movement for people too, it was argued. There was also the feeling that with better intelligence sharing and new technology, checks at internal frontiers were fast becoming an obsolete method of tracking criminals.

With their long land border, Europeans had always paid less attention to frontier controls than island Britain. France has 300 access points, and of these only 35 are controlled at all. More than 1,500 trucks pass across the German-Austrian border a day. Four million containers come into Rotterdam a year, 90 per cent of them in transit for destinations beyond the Netherlands.

But as Schengen was taking shape it was overtaken by events. The break- up of Eastern Europe, bringing new immigrants and the coming of the "jet age refugees" from Third World countries seeking asylum in Europe heightened fears among member states. The Colombian drug cartels started to target western Europe, having saturated the US market. Heroin is a growing problem in Europe again, with traffickers from Asia finding entry through Bulgaria, Slovakia and Romania. At the same time came the rise of the far right, particularly in France.

In Brussels, officials who still cling to the border-free ideal despair at the turn things are taking, accusing politicians of pandering to public ignorance and prejudice, thereby fuelling new inter-European xenophobia. "The politicians are looking for scapegoats. They have internal problems and they have to blame something," said one disgruntled Commission official.

But the new political reality cannot be ignored. Free movement of goods is one thing, but the French experience suggests that when it comes to free movement of people, the trust between neighbours just ran out.