France retains frontier controls: Decision to put off introduction of the Schengen treaty dismays EC officials

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The Independent Online
FRANCE delivered a painful, if symbolic, blow to the concept of a frontier-free Europe yesterday when it indefinitely suspended the introduction of a treaty removing border controls between it and eight other EC states.

The decision was greeted with dismay in Brussels but smiles in London. The British government has long argued against removing European border controls because of fears that it would benefit terrorists, drug dealers and illegal immigrants and would encourage the spread of diseases, such as rabies, endemic on the continent.

The decision to put the Schengen Agreement - named after the Luxembourg village where it was signed - on hold may prove an important indicator of the new French government's attitude towards the EC. Already hostile to the trade agreement reached with the United States in the Gatt talks last year, and the moves to reform the European agricultural system, France may again be getting up to its old Gaullist tricks.

The Schengen agreement was to have come into effect on 1 July but Alain Lamassoure, the European Affairs Minister in the conservative government, told the National Assembly Foreign Affairs Commission on Thursday that security conditions permitting free movement between EC states - except Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Greece, which did not sign the treaty - were not ripe and might not be 'for quite a long time'. As a result, France 'will maintain police controls on the frontiers', he said.

The Schengen treaty would have abolished passport checks on land frontiers and for passengers arriving on flights from signatory states. The treaty also provides for close police co-operation, with forces having the right of hot pursuit over borders. France earlier refused to allow arrests to be made on its soil by foreign police forces.

Mr Lamassoure cited drug trafficking as the main reason for wishing to keep controls. Authorities in northern France are particularly worried that liberal drug laws in the Netherlands will affect their region. France has repeatedly dismissed any notion of decriminalising the possession of any drugs, while the Netherlands, Spain and, most recently, Italy have done so.

Another unspoken factor may have been the government's desire to clamp down on illegal immigration. The lifting of passport controls at frontiers would have complicated this task further in a nation that has borders with six countries. Illegal immigration is considered an important contributory factor to a number of social problems, particularly unemployment, which has reached 10.7 per cent of the working population, according to figures released this week.

In private, Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist Interior Minister, has for years expressed concern that France would be at the mercy of the inefficiency of other countries if proper policing were not maintained at the Community's external frontiers. He has said it could ease the movement of both illegal immigrants and terrorists.

Such arguments are similar to those which prompted Britain's earlier refusal to join talks on ending border controls. The Schengen mechanism, originally bringing together France, the former West Germany and the Benelux countries, was devised outside the regular EC structures to circumvent Britain's hostility. It was signed in June 1990.

The agreement foresaw harmonisation of entry procedures and controls. A commission headed by a senior French policeman is touring the Schengen signatories to examine progress and prepare a report for an EC interior ministers' meeting in Madrid next month.