EU's border-free zone hobbles into place hobbles into action

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

The Schengen agreement, the ambitious European Union plan to abolish internal border controls among member countries, limps into effect today like a sprinter shot in the leg. The man who fired the bullet is President Jacques Chirac of France.

France's last-minute decision on Thursday not to join Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain in allowing passport-free travel among themselves indicates Mr Chirac's sympathy for the Government's argument that the project will lead to more crime and illegal immigration. It also underlines Mr Chirac's determination to stick up for French national interests even at the expense of EU harmony.

France's allies are none too happy about the measure. The Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, fired out a public statement saying he deplored the French action. Germany and the Netherlands adamantly rejected France's request for a six-month delay in implementing the agreement.

However, the Schengen convention is by no means dead. From now on, if all other six countries play by the rules, no officials will request identity papers from a traveller driving, say, from Brussels to Cologne or flying from Madrid to Lisbon.

Moreover, the European Commission intends to publish plans next month for the removal of all other EU internal borders. Two non-EU countries, Iceland and Norway, are to open talks on joining the Schengen group so that they can maintain their 40-year-old passport union with the EU's Nordic members.

Still, the French announcement was a blow to the Schengen initiative and to the ideal of ever closer European unity that lies at its heart. It made clear that France's newly elected Gaullist leaders do not intend to be pushed into agreements that they suspect might harm the country and undermine their standing with French voters.

In defence of the French government's decision Alain Juppe, the Prime Minister, said: "The way visas are issued by the consulates of our partners around the world does not permit us to verify that we are not taking in undesirable illegal immigrants."

French officials complained that in April and May, shortly after the Schengen agreement took effect for a three-month trial period, drug seizures in northern France had risen by 58 per cent. French police blame liberal attitudes towards drugs in the Netherlands, a view that has provoked indignation in the Dutch press.

A French document, submitted to an EU ministers' meeting in Brussels on Thursday, contended that four of the seven Schengen countries had failed to report any stolen identity papers or banknotes. Out of 581 asylum-seekers arriving illegally in France from other Schengen states, only 2 per cent had been taken back by the country of origin.

Supporters of the Schengen agreement say it is wrong to blame it for illegal immigration, since Schengen's aim is actually to tighten the EU's external borders with non-EU states while removing internal frontiers. .

However, even Schengen enthusiasts acknowledge that there is a growing immigration problem in, for example, Italy, which has signed the agreement without yet implementing it. Large numbers of illegal immigrants from eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond are crossing from Albania into Italy.

The Government, always uncomfortable with the practical implications of Schengen, is likely to welcome the French decision as proof of a growing closeness of views between London and Paris since Mr Chirac took over last month. However, French officials said their action should not be misinterpreted. "Our aim is not to kill the Schengen accords, but to apply them properly," said an aide to Mr Juppe.