INTERIOR Minister Robert Kaliňák has announced that Slovakia will be prepared when the time comes to join the Schengen zone.
According to Kaliňák, an action plan has been prepared in response to the EU's criticisms last year of Slovakia's readiness for Schengen entry. He said that Slovakia's first priority now is to improve the current Ukraine border crossing and build a new crossing in the village of Vyšné Nemecké that will be in compliance with Schengen criteria.
"Some of the issues have already been addressed and others are being dealt with around-the-clock," Kaliňák said last week after a cabinet session that approved an action plan for ensuring entrance into the Schengen zone. "We are not counting on any scenario other than being prepared on time."
Several countries have recently criticized the newer EU members for not being prepared for entry into the Schengen zone.
The Czech Republic had reservations over Slovakia's readiness and said it would introduce stricter checks on their common border if Slovakia did not meet the entry criteria, but during his February visit to Slovakia, Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer admitted that such a step would probably not be necessary.
The European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, Frank Frantini, said on February 27 in Budapest that the Commission plans to give new Schengen members access to the Schengen Information System OECD 1 in December. This will enable them to open their continental and maritime borders to other members when they join the Schengen zone on January 1, 2008. The Schengen enlargement for airports will probably be several months behind schedule.
Vladimír Bilčík, an international relations analyst from the Slovak Foreign Policy Association NGO, responded to Kaliňák's statements by mentioning that politicians will naturally give an optimistic account of Slovak preparedness as it will be their counterparts in Schengen zone member states who will decide whether or not Slovakia will be able to join.
"[Schengen zone] politicians approved a joint statement during the latest essential decision of the Ministerial Council in December 2006 in which they outlined a different stance for each individual country that is waiting for entry into Schengen," he said. "And while Slovakia has been mentioned several times as a potential problem case, it is only natural that Slovak politicians will try to assure us that we will be prepared on time."
According to Bilčík, Slovakia has run into several obstacles, mainly technical. "These can be removed, of course," he told The Slovak Spectator.
The question, however, is whether they can be removed before the end of the year.
"It seems that some of the technical problems won't be taken care of until months, perhaps even years, after we officially join Schengen," Bilčík said.
However, he stressed that no country entering the Schengen was ever 100 percent prepared. "Many issues have to be fine-tuned for several months. That was even the case for countries like Austria," he told The Slovak Spectator.
Bilčík said the biggest roadblock will be securing the border between Slovakia and Ukraine. This border is 98 kilometres long and Slovakia has to build an effective and operating security system along it.
"Today it's the security aspect, and especially the challenge of securing the whole Slovak-Ukrainian border that is being emphasized," he said. "A little bit less attention is being paid to the final capacity of the border crossings. Slovakia is lagging quite far behind in this respect."
Kaliňák is aware of the fact that the security of the future Schengen border is a crucial issue for European partners.
"When the control committee comes in June, we will have to pass an exam to see if we are prepared for Schengen and whether or not our system will be able to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing our borders," he said. "And also whether our eastern border will be prepared to deal with increased pressure and protect the security of citizens of the whole European Union."
Bilčík told The Slovak Spectator that Slovakia only has two official crossings on the Ukrainian border. The larger of the two in Vyšné Nemecké is currently being rebuilt.
"The capacity of the Slovak-Ukrainian border might be even smaller after our accession into Schengen," he said. "The possibility for Ukrainian citizens to enter Slovakia will be made more difficult at least for a time, as Slovakia will start issuing a Schengen visa."
The Ukrainian border is in bad condition. "We simply have invested tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of crowns into building up our borders with our other neighbours - but after having joined Schengen, this work will be made pointless," said Bilčík.
Slovakia has only just started working on its eastern border.
"It is already five minutes past the eleventh hour," Bilčík said.
He added that even the personnel policy of the customs administration and the passport control run by the police force is not up to snuff.
"It is clear that the people sent to this border were not always the best," Bilčík said. "Today, the eastern border is in deplorable condition."
Another problem that may arise is the size of the Slovak consulate in the Ukrainian town of Užhorod. Bilčík said he thought it would not be big enough to deal with issuing Schengen visas.
"Our consulate there is just a large house," he said. "Schengen rules are stricter and they require that the necessary technical equipment be at the consulate, which I consider to be a big problem."
In the second half of June, the Assessing Committee of the EU will carry out an inspection in Slovakia. By that time Slovakia will have to have taken more steps towards securing its eastern border in order to enter the Schengen zone on schedule on January 1, 2008. Kaliňák promised that by that time, Slovakia will have built up the Office of Border and Foreign Police in Vyšné Nemecké along with eight new border control departments.
26. Mar 2007 at 0:00 | Ľuba Lesná