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Thursday, October 30, 1997 Published at 15:06 GMT

World: Europe

Italy joins Europe's passport-free travel area

Italy has begun to implement the Schengen agreement on control-free travel, which already covers most of the continent's land area. Austria will also join the Schengen group of countries in December.

The removal of border controls has been accompanied by a series of political arguments, but believers in closer European integration look forward to a time when it will be possible to go from the edge of the Arctic circle to the Mediterranean sea without ever having to show a passport.

In a special report for BBC News Online, the BBC's European affairs analyst, William Horsley, reports:

With Italy's entry into the Schengen group, the ideal of free movement within Europe is coming much closer. Already seven nations are fully active members of the agreement -- Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

From October 26, travellers who fly, say, between Milan and Nice will not have to show their passports when they land. People who travel to or from Italy by land or sea may still be asked to produce their passports during a transitional period up to April 1st next year.

From December, Austria too will implement a control-free border regime with the other Schengen states, although it too will be subject to the same temporary measures on its land borders with Germany and Italy until next April.

[ image: passport-free travel]
passport-free travel
For several years car drivers who crossed the border between Germany and France, and some other national frontiers on the European mainland, have done so without having to show travel documents. Many of these border crossings still have roadside cafes and shops where travellers can exchange currencies, but no police or customs officials.

But even that limited lifting of controls has been a long, hard struggle, ever since France, Germany and the Benelux countries met in Schengen, in Luxembourg, in 1985 to sign an accord on the gradual abolition of frontier controls.

France still keeps some land border checks with its neighbour, Belgium, because of worries that it could be a transit route for drugs from the Netherlands. The Austrians have been forced to delay their full participation in Schengen because Germany accused it of being too lax in its control of its borders with former Yugoslavia and eastern Europe.

That problem was only solved after Bavarian and Austrian police agreed on setting up joint operations to control one of the key stretches of the 'outer border' of the European Union.

In the same way, French and Italian police plan to carry out joint mobile patrols which will replace the present border posts. Italy has had to wait seven years since it first signed the Schengen Treaty, because other signatories feared an influx of illegal immigrants from there.

Italy had to cope with an enormous influx of ship-borne refugees from Albania, after the recent political upheaval there. So far this year the Italian authorities have detained more than nine thousand illegal immigrants; and it is estimated that there may be more than half a million of them living in Italy who have escaped detection.

Also, a spate of bombings in France in the past two years has highlighted the danger of violent political extremists taking advantage of the growing freedom of movement in Europe. The Convention of 1990 on applying the Schengen agreement lays down how signatory states should cooperate to counter drugs trafficking and other crime, and illegal immigration.

But the challenge is immense: Italy alone has eight thousand kilometres of shoreline; and since the collapse of communism there has been a big upsurge in the activity of organised crime gangs from the former Soviet Union.

[ image: no more customs]
no more customs
These are a few of the serious problems which still have to be tackled, The key is the so-called Schengen Information System -- a computer filing system designed to enable any European police force to check the identity of any person suspected of breaking the law. Last year alone, officials says, French police asked the computer for information on no fewer than 38 million occasions.

The Schengen accord has certainly become more politically effective since the European Union's Amsterdam Treaty of June this year. The treaty provides for its work to take place within the machinery of the EU itself, rather than inter-governmentally.

The prospects for further expansion of Schengen are good. Greece has signed, and is preparing to be an active partner, as have the Nordic states Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway.

Only Britain and Ireland, as islands with their own rules on immigration matters, have decided for the time being to remain outside the accord.

For Britain, the sudden arrival in the past week of gypsy asylum-seekers from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, after travelling by land and sea across Europe, has helped to fuel the belief that the country needs to keep its own border controls.

But if Schengen is seen in the coming years to help in creating what the Amsterdam Treaty calls an area of 'freedom, justice and security', it is possible to imagine a new situation: one in which the whole area from the snowy north to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean may belong to a Europe without frontiers.

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