Vienna, 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Eastern European countries objecting to the creation of what they see as "Fortress Europe" in terms of border controls may have been given a temporary reprieve thanks to a computer fault.
Austrian Interior Minister Caspar Einem says that because of the fault, he doubts his country and others will be able to meet a planned July 1 deadline for membership in the Schengen open borders plan.
Schengen provides for the opening of interior borders between participating European Union (EU) countries and the strengthening of external borders, with stronger checks on all non-EU nationals trying to enter. Eastern European countries object that this is creating a two-tier system, with their nationals facing delays at borders into the EU while others pass easily.
Seven countries are already members, but Austria, Italy and Greece are expected to join. If they all do so at once, says Austria's Einem, the computer system devoted to the Schengen project will collapse. He says the central computer network which is located in Strasbourg is simply too small for the task. The system has to contain upwards of five million files on "undesirables" who are not allowed to enter Schengen countries.
An RFE/RL correspondent in Vienna reports the computer center was initially designed to handle a Schengen membership of eight countries. With the arrival of three new members, the computer would have to be extended to cope, which would take at least until next October, according to Einem.
The exact membership timetable will be set on December 19 at the meeting of Schengen Interior ministers in Luxembourg. The meeting will also decide whether Austria is to take the chair in July, despite not translating the agreement into action on its borders.
If neighbor Italy goes ahead with membership plans at the same time, Austria would be responsible for a 1,460 kilometer exterior border. The expansion of border police patrols is reported going according to plan, as well as the strengthening of army patrols.
A Hungarian foreign office official who condemned Austrian membership plans summed up the Eastern European view of Schengen when he said: "We find the Austrians' approach discriminatory against Hungarian citizens."
"It will also cost Hungary billions of forints (tens of millions of dollars) in tourism revenues, because we fear many tourists will decide not to come to Hungary if it takes six or eight hours for them to return to Austria," he said.