Britain Steps Away From A Frontier-Free Europe

Prime Minister John Major may be locking horns with other European Union leaders when he meets them in Dublin Dec. 13.

Reason No. 1 is the high-profile issue of a single currency. But the other European thorn in the British lion's side is the rest of the EU's determination to dismantle obstacles to the free movement of people between member states.

Britain wants none of that.

A plan for a frontier-free Europe is on the Dublin agenda, but the idea has never appealed to the British government. And British immigration officials confirmed that they were under orders to continue implementing the policy of closly screening arrivals at Britain's points of entry.

In contrast, people traveling by road between the EU's continental states in many cases nowadays have trouble deciding where one country ends and the other begins.

This reporter, driving earlier this year in southern Germany near the French border, decided to head west across a bridge over the River Rhine. There were no frontier markings, no immigration posts. Less than a minute's drive on the other side of the bridge, the Tricolor was spotted fluttering from the flagpole of a French post office.

The frontier between these two ancient enemies has become invisible.

So far seven of the EU's 15 member states have dismantled frontier controls for their citizens. In March 1995, under the Schengen agreement, the three Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg), together with Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal, began allowing their citizens free movement between the seven signatory states.

For the non-EU traveler, Schengen is a boon. A visa for one signatory nation suffices for the six others. Since Schengen came into force, most other EU members have said they want to operate much the same system. Even Norway and Iceland, both non-EU states, want to join in.

The exception is Britain.

British government attitudes toward Schengen are even tougher than those towards a single currency. On the topic of a Euro-currency, Major is going to Dublin with what he calls a "wait and see" approach. But he says signing on to Schengen is "totally out of the question."

Countries keen to dismantle the EU's internal frontiers argue that there are ways to meet British objections that do not require close scrutiny of passports.

As a safeguard against dangerous criminals moving freely between EU countries, police in Schengen signatory countries hover at tollbooths and may make random checks on car travelers.

In addition, most continental countries, require citizens to carry identity cards, and the police can insist that they be produced on demand. Computer networks enable police to swap information across frontiers.

But in Britain, computer link-ups with police in continental states are rudimentary and identity cards are not mandatory. In fact, public opinion polls frequently reveal a majority of Britons are opposed to carrying an identity card, arguing that to be forced to do so would infringe their civil liberties.

This means that even if the British government were to change its mind and decide to take the Schengen route, it would find it difficult to do so.

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