EU security database upgrade could be scrapped
The Czech EU presidency has set a deadline of the end of June to either go ahead or scrap a multi-million-euro security database upgrade to the bloc's border-free area due to technical difficulties and delays.
The Schengen Information System II (SIS II) was supposed to be up and running by 2007 and interconnect comprehensive passport and police databases from all 25 members of the Schengen border-free area.
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Named after a town in Luxembourg where the initial border-free agreement was signed in 1985, the Schengen area now includes all EU member states except for UK and Ireland, while Romania and Bulgaria are set to join 2011. Cyprus' entry date to the area is expected before Romania and Bulgaria, but is not set yet. Non-EU members Switzerland, Norway and Iceland also belong to the zone.
"The result will be: We dismantle all the problems, the SIS II works, and there is a fixed date when it's over," said Czech interior minister Ivan Langer, who hosted a meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers in Prague on Thursday.
"Or, at the end of our presidency, the result will be that the problems are so serious that we have to follow the contingency plan," he told reporters at a press conference.
That plan is to be drawn up by May by experts from member nations.
"I hope that three or four months is enough to be able to find a solution," Mr Langer said.
Some €28 million have been already spent on the project since 2002 and further €40 million have been earmarked for the system.
"It is unacceptable to put money into developing this if the future of the project is not clear," Austrian interior minister Maria Fekter told reporters on the sidelines of the talks.
However, France urged caution due to the importance of the security system.
"We have to be very cautious, to only move forward in a way that is technically certain and we have to be careful not to leave any other member behind," said French interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie.
Mr Langer, chairing his first EU ministerial meeting under the Czech presidency, described it as "a very tough debate, there were very critical views expressed."
"Some wanted to bring (the project) to an end," he added.
The old system (SIS), which has been in place since 1995, only provides basic information such as passport numbers, on travellers entering their territory from outside the Schengen zone.
When the EU expanded in 2004, Schengen members decided to create a new SIS that would both accommodate the new members and allow them to exchange not just passport numbers, but fingerprints and photos.
But SIS II experienced huge technical problems, with computers in the member states unable to communicate with the EU's centralised database. The problems lasted so long that the EU invited the new member states into the Schengen zone under the old technical system in December 2007 - re-naming it SISone4ALL.
Officials on Thursday insisted that it was still not too late to bring SIS II into effect.
"It's true that there is a bit of a delay, but we'll fix a schedule and we'll stick to it," EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said.
Bulgaria and Romania can join without SIS II
Asked whether the problems with SIS II could mean a delay for Bulgaria and Romania's entering the border-free zone, Barrot said: "It is not essential to have SIS II in place to carry out further enlargements of the Schengen area."
On 13 January, Bulgarian and Romanian officals told a joint news conference that there was "no reason" to delay their countries' joining Schengen beyond March 2011.
Romania already had started issuing biometric passports required for SIS II, while Bulgaria was currently selecting the company to produce them.