Austria vows to repel alien Balkan tide

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The Independent Online
If it is true, as some Germans insist, that the Balkans begin in Austria, then this tiny Bavarian town in the foothills of the Alps marks the boundary between two worlds; the point where index-linked pensions fade into pyramid schemes.

In purely geographical terms, the Balkans are a good 400 miles down the road. In some respects, Lindau is the gateway to the East. Once the lorries packed with drugs or illegal immigrants trundle past its checkpoint, nobody can stop them from disgorging their contents into the streets of Western Europe.

The Bavarian border guards the southern flank of "Schengen country", a seamless land mass of seven states which peters out at the Atlantic coast.

The Germans used to moan about the burden of keeping the eastern hordes at bay, but now they are terrified of handing over control. On 27 October Austria, Greece and Italy are to become full members of the Schengen club, inheriting the task of stemming the flow of undesirable goods and people.

The lorries will make their last pit stop hundreds of miles east and south, along Austria's border with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. Lindau will become a deserted chicane.

The Germans, having watched their Austrian colleagues closely, are not sure that's such a good idea. They point out that while it takes three years to teach a German border guard how to "sniff out" heroin, the Austrians get only a few days' training before being thrown in at the deep end.

According to the German press, the Austrian border is like Swiss cheese. Anecdotes, or maybe urban myths, are circulating in Bavaria about Austrian hairdressers being hastily drafted in to man the barriers. The Independent spotted no scissors at Lindau , only an Austrian guard who seemed too young to be entrusted with anything other than a shampoo.

"We are fully trained officers," says Peter Durdak of the Bavarian border police. "We have decades of experience which the Austrians do not have." To put it bluntly, Austria is "not up to Schengen standards". That's not to say that the Austrians are shambolic. Given time, say three years, their people might become nearly as "effective and efficient" as the Bavarian officers.

They are trying very hard. Last month, Bavarian guards caught within the space of three days two lorries packed with illegal immigrants: 50 Kurds in one consignment and 40 Kosovo Albanians in the other. Both had been checked and waved through by the Austrians.

Vienna reacted to that embarrassment by supplying its troops with devices which try to detect an illicit human cargo through its carbon dioxide emission around the vehicle. They have not caught anybody yet, but their thorough searches have resulted in 12-hour queues at the border.

There is, understandably, not much love lost between the two forces as the Bavarians step up their verbal assault on their demoralised cousins. "It's not that we want to play the teacher and tell our neighbours what to do," says Michael Ziegler of the Bavarian Interior Ministry. "But Austria has no specific border force, and it takes time to set one up."

Munich's solution, likely to be vigorously backed by the German government at the next Schengen meeting in Brussels, is to postpone the handover until the year 2000. Austria would be fobbed off with control over the Vienna-Munich air corridor in the interim.

As for the credentials of the other two applicants, the prospect of Greece controlling Asian traffic does not bear thinking about, and Italy is equally dubious.

"If Italy were in Schengen, the Albanians who have been landing in Brindisi in recent weeks would have an open road to Munich or Hamburg," Mr Ziegler points out. "The question must be asked: `Can Italy cope with the one million illegal immigrants already living there?'" In the absence of a reassuring answer, Lindau looks set to remain the end of the Schengen road for some time.