24th Mar 2023

Big bang enlargement for Schengen zone agreed

  • Checks at land and sea borders will end on 21 December (Photo: European Commission)

EU interior ministers unanimously agreed Thursday (8 November) that nine member states from central and eastern Europe are sufficiently prepared to join the bloc's Schengen border-free zone in December.

Checks at internal land and sea borders will be abolished on 21 December, with air borders to follow in March 2008.

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After expanding to Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the current 15-member Schengen club will see its biggest ever enlargement.

The first cornerstones to the zone were laid down in Schengen, a small Luxembourg village at the geographical meeting-point of Germany, the Benelux countries and France in 1985. Thirteen EU countries, plus Norway and Iceland, have since joined the passport-free area.

Britain, Ireland as well as Cyprus have chosen to stay out, while Bulgaria and Romania have yet to meet the necessary requirements.

"While it was Slovakia and other new countries who joined the EU in 2004, today it is the EU which joins Slovakia", the country's interior minister Robert Kalinak said on Thursday, adding that move will also abolish the division between old and new Europe.

MEPs' call for thorough re-evaluation

All 27 EU ministers will formally endorse Thursday's decision on 6 December, once the European Parliament renders its opinion next week. Members of the parliament must be consulted on the issue.

Portuguese conservative MEP Carlos Coelho, in charge of the dossier in the parliament, told EUobserver he would encourage his colleagues "to agree" to the lifting of the internal borders.

He added, however, that "there are shortcomings" and all nine newcomers should "inform the council and the parliament, in writing and in the course of the next six months, on the follow-up they intend to undertake regarding the recommendations and on the necessary changes that are still being made".

Mr Coelho has cited as an example the situation in an airport in Tallinn, Estonia, which is under reconstruction and needs to separate Schengen and non-Schengen air passengers in a satisfactory way.

"We can live with a temporary solution, but member states must provide the final one", he said, adding "although there are some outstanding issues that will require follow-up at some point in the future, they do not constitute an obstacle to full Schengen membership for these member states".

Next week in Strasbourg, the Portuguese deputy is also set to call for "a global evaluation" of the Schengen member states - something he said should come in two years time, when the second generation of the Schengen information system (SIS II) is to replace the current one.

"We want to evaluate all Schengen members ... in order to make sure that all are in line with the demands of the next generation of SIS", Mr Coelho said.

The SIS gives the national authorities permanent access to the latest information on persons who are wanted, missing or banned from residence and also on lost and stolen property.


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