Fears grow as Europe's frontiers come down

Britons may face delays at airports, while human rights groups sound alarm over asylum-seekers
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The Independent Online
FMore delays for British passengers, human rights abuses and problems for legally resident immigrants could be the indirect results of a new border-free regime in Europe.

Seven of the 15 EU states embarked yesterday on the experiment, removing border controls between their countries to create a single space within which citizens who are legally resident in any one state can move to the others. The so-called Schengen group, comprising France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, have enacted the scheme. Italy, Austria and Greece will join it later and Denmark is thinking about it.

It is only five years behind schedule. Antonio Vitorino, a Portuguese MEP, described it as like "waiting for Godot". The idea was conceived in 1985, with a nominal deadline of 1990. All EU states agreed in 1985 to create a border-free area, but the Schengen group decided to go faster.

As from yesterday, airline passengers from these countries were treated as domestic travellers and shifted to domestic terminals. No hitches were reported. Land borders will come into line by July. Because Britain and other EU states excluded themselves, there will be three categories of airline traveller: Schengen, EU non-Schengen and international.

There may be extra delays for Britons flying to the Continent, as they will be routed to different parts of the airport. "There should be no difference," said Luc Geens, British Airways station manager at Brussels airport. "But there could be an impact as a result of the changes, as there will be capacity problems. And I fear there will be problems at immigration."

The experiment may be only a partial success. It has long been possible to drive between most EU states with no controls. Though there are sometimes spot checks on trains, the land borders between most EU states are in practice already porous.

But there is concern that, as external controls are still weak, police will seek other, disruptive ways to check on travellers.

Hedy D'Ancone, a Dutch Socialist MEP, warned that new controls were being introduced. "The checks are being made 100 metres further on, not at the borders," she told the European Parliament.

The Euro-Citizen Action Service (Ecas) says it has received a growing number of calls on its hotline, reporting "cases of unexplained search and harassment at road crossings and on trains, often falling in a discriminatory way on people who look hard up, who are elderly or disabled and `foreign'."

Amnesty International fears the new controls will cause problems for asylum-seekers. The participating states have agreed new rules for deciding which countries should examine a request for asylum, but the human rights organisation fears this could be harmful.

There will be problems for states that are not in the EU or in disputed areas. Switzerland and Norway will both experience trouble. "There is legitimate concern, too, in Gibraltar," said Ecas. Spanish sources say delays on the border could increase.

The whole of the EU is heading towards removing frontiers. The European Commission has announced legislation this year to remove border checks. But Britain will resist EU legislation on the subject in the European Court of Justice, and may win. n Ecas has set up a Brussels hotline for problems with EU borders, visas or passport checks. Telephone: 00- 32-2-534-4233.