The Schengen group, named after the Dutch town where the matter was first discussed, admitted yesterday that it was 'disappointed, frustrated but largely powerless' that, because of alleged software problems with a central computer, the 1 February deadline could not be met. The Schengen group comprises all EU members bar the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark, all of which argue they cannot afford to lift internal borders because they are also external frontiers.
The abolition of internal frontiers, the public manifestation of the frontier-free single market, has been dogged with problems. First, the French constitution had to be revised to meet objections that the Schengen treaty, unless written into law, was at odds with French attempts to curb asylum-seekers.
Then the computer system in Strasbourg holding data on undesirable citizens had software problems. A 1 December deadline came and went; 1 February was set as the new horizon. However, Sema, the company that has supplied the software, complains its goods are fine and the fault lies with national governments, which have so far failed to make their national computer systems compatible.
Civil rights groups are already concerned that the Schengen Information System sets a dangerous precedent and that it must be made more open. Airport authorities, many of which are privately run, complain that because it is up to them to build special passport-free channels for travellers within the EU, they have had to pay for what is effectively a political decision not of their making.
The Euro Citizen Action Service (Ecas), a lobby group that monitors the effect of European legislation on its citizens, says that airline and ferry companies face fines for knowingly transporting people who may be illegal immigrants, thus shifting responsibility for controlling immigration on to private companies. This, Ecas complains, 'can lead to a denial of rights because companies often play safe and refuse individuals who do not carry the necessary documents from boarding, even when there is a chance that the individuals may be given asylum in the country of destination'.