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Tuesday, March 10, 1998 Published at 17:52 GMT

Crime without frontiers?

Italy's long coastal borders worry other European Union countries

Illegal immigration and organised crime could emerge as the most daunting obstacles to early membership of the European Union for East European countries.

EU justice and home affairs ministers met earlier this year to discuss the implications of enlargement for the combating of international crime. They are well aware of warnings that an enlarged Union will become more vulnerable to illegal migrants, drugs smuggling and money laundering.

Borders move eastwards

Once countries such as Poland and Estonia join the European Union, they will assume responsibility for the external borders of a Union in which internal borders have been largely abolished.

But at the moment, all former communist countries are laying greater emphasis on reforming their economies than on securing their frontiers.

According to the European Commission, only Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are likely to put in place adequate legislation and crime-control systems in the next few years. Estonia and particularly Poland, which has a long border with countries of the former Soviet Union, still face significant challenges in combating the trafficking of women, drugs and stolen cars.

As the enlargement process develops, politicians from EU member states are hinting that long transition periods may be necessary before they can allow free movement of people from the new members in the East.

The British Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has already stressed that the issue of border controls would play a major part in the enlargement negotiations. Expressing her worries, the European Justice Commissioner, Anita Gradin, said: "We know that organised crime knows that there are loophoples in the legislation of all ten countries that have asked for membership."

The EU has offered help with legal experts, training of customs officials and sniffer dogs, new communications and computer equipment, drug analysers and fingerprint registers.

Each candidate country will be required to adapt its legislation and police controls to EU standards.

Adding to old woes

[ image: Is such a long coastline defensible?]
Is such a long coastline defensible?
But not only accession countries have border problems.

Italy, which has recently abolished border controls with the other nine countries that are members of the Schengen convention, has been criticised by Germany and France for exerting insufficient controls on its coastline.

Meanwhile in Austria, another country that joined the Schengen group late last year, the leader of the far-right opposition, Jörg Haider, said enlargement was a declaration of war on his country. Speaking darkly of a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, Mr Haider urged the government not to pursue membership talks when Austria takes on the EU presidency in the second half of this year.

Although this is by no means the government's position, the Austrian foreign minister did ask for regional aid to cushion the blow of enlargement for its border areas with Eastern Europe.

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In this section

A wider union

What can go wrong on the road to enlargement?

The enlargement timetable

Brussels prepares for tough discussions

Europe as 'fig-leaf'

Local worries overshadow Czech ambitions

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Cyprus: country report

Slovenia: country report

Estonia: country report

Czech Republic: country report

Hungary: country report