Computers hold up open EC borders

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The Independent Online
COMPUTER problems will delay full implementation of the EC's open-border policy - already nearly a year behind schedule - until February.

A meeting of the Schengen group, named after the town where EC members first gathered to discuss the problem, announced in Paris yesterday that the dismantling of border controls would begin in December as previously agreed. But in the face of French pressure, ministers agreed that the changes could be phased in slowly and need not be completed until February 1994.

Britain, Ireland and Denmark are the only EC countries that are not signatories to the Schengen accord, drawn up to provide for the lifting of border controls on people as required by the creation of the Single Market as of January this year. Britain, Ireland and Denmark are not signatories to the accord and are thus not bound by it. They argue that because of their geographical position on the periphery of the EC, their internal frontiers are simultaneously external frontiers and must still be policed.

In theory, once the Schengen accord is implemented, nationals of the nine Schengen nations will not be required to show their passports at European borders, though all retain the right to run spot-checks. The most marked changes to existing practices will be at airports. In continental Europe, many airport authorities are busy rebuilding domestic/Schengen zones where there will be no passport checks and international areas where procedures will remain unchanged. Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, for example, has developed a system of smart cards which will be handed to all passengers travelling within the Community when they check in. These people will then pass through separate turnstiles at their EC destination.

The 'blue' customs channels that have been introduced at London's Heathrow airport for flights starting and ending within the EC are not designed to control people, but goods, and again the authorities retain the right to run spot-checks.

Implementation of the Schengen accord depends, however, on the ability of countries to pool security information. The setting-up of the Schengen Information Security system designed for this task has been dogged by software problems from the start. In the summer a new right-wing French government - particularly concerned to curb illegal immigration - complained that it could not sign the Schengen accord unless the computer network was up and running.

Before yesterday's meeting there was a fear that Paris, whom some believed now wanted an excuse to back off from the accord, might argue for implementation to be delayed until a scheduled ministerial meeting next month. But the problem was resolved though a compromise: 50 per cent of the convention will be implemented as of December, the rest more gradually.