THE EUROPEAN Union is to decide at its December summit whether to allow new member states to join its borderless Schengen travel zone by the original deadline of late 2007.
The proposal was made at the first round of talks between the interior ministers of EU member states in Luxembourg on October 5.
At the meeting, EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini faced renewed calls by ministers from the new EU member states for the Union to stick to the plan and not delay their entry to the Schengen zone. Frattini in turn suggested that the states could join by the summer of 2008, but that the EU would have the last word.
Poland's Interior Minister Ludwik Dorn said at the meeting that the Schengen zone was as much about symbols as about easier travel.
"It is extremely difficult for us to accept a solution where a date would be postponed," he said. "For citizens, what counts is that internal borders are no more because this is a signal that the EU works."
Lithuania's Interior Minister Raimondas Sukys also supported the drive led by Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to have the EU stick to the 2007 date, and called for the issue to be resolved at an EU leaders' summit in two weeks.
"When is the final date for opening the borders? It should be announced," he said.
The Schengen zone comprises 13 older EU states plus Norway and Iceland, but does not include Ireland or Great Britain. It has no internal border controls, and a common Schengen visa allows free movement among all countries that belong.
While the older members of the EU have said technical delays with a new police database for more secure travel documents are behind the proposed delay, diplomats from the newer member countries say privately they believe the Union is reluctant to honour the deal at a time of rising tensions over immigration from the new members.
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble insisted that the new members meet the EU's tough border security rules before being allowed to join.
"New member states must fulfill the conditions - otherwise Europe will not get more but less security," he said.
However, the new EU members say they can have their systems ready in time, and that any delay will not be their fault.
Slovakia's EU Ambassador Maroš Šefčovič, sitting in at the October 5 meeting for Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, said the original date was realistic "as long as we manage to solve all of the technical problems", and demanded it be kept.
"Slovakia is prepared to meet all commitments flowing from the schedule of tasks we have to complete by the end of the year. We believe that Slovakia will not be a barrier to joining the Schengen system on deadline," he said.
The Finnish presidency of the EU is to draft a new study by December that should definitively set the date for the new EU states to enter Schengen. The study will consider a proposal by Portugal that the new members be allowed to join the Schengen Information System (SIS I) under its existing technical parameters, and that the new system, SIS II, be brought on line when it is ready.
Šefčovič said the Portuguese experts were convinced that if agreement on their proposal can be found, there need be no delay.
The European Commission has also said it is studying ways to partially compensate the new members for any losses associated with a delay in entering Schengen. Frattini said the money could be found in the border protection fund.
Meanwhile, in another long-standing dispute over travel, the European Commission recommended on October 4 that the EU impose visa requirements on US diplomats because the US has failed to lift its visa demands for all 25 members of the EU, such as Slovakia and the other nations who joined in 2004.
Frattini sent a letter on October 4 to US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declaring it was "no longer understandable and acceptable" for the US to stall on lifting the visa requirements.
US officials claim Greece and 9 of the 10 new EU members still fail to meet all the US criteria necessary for joining the visa-free program.
9. Oct 2006 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson