TALLINN - Hopes that border checkpoints between Baltic nations and the rest of Europe could be removed by 2007 were dashed after technical problems were revealed with a new computer database designed to control the system. As of now, the Baltic states will not be able to enter the Schengen zone until 2008 at the earliest, the European Union reported. Yet Estonian officials remain optimistic.
"We are prepared. We can integrate our information systems to the SIS central system in March next year. But I don't believe we can join until 2009," Estonia's Interior Ministry Schengen coordinator Pirit Lillevali told The Baltic Times.
Other government officials are skeptical about the European Commission's ability to implement the new information system, known as SIS II, and have set 2009 as a more realistic target.
Whatever the case, the Schengen zone seems to be joining the eurozone as an ever-retreating goal.
Although the Baltic nations are signatories to the Schengen agreement, they are not yet full members. As EU members, they enjoy visa-free travel across the Union, but they must still maintain passport control on their borders.
Lillevali said this was an inconvenience Baltic citizens should not have to endure.
"It is more complicated for Estonians. We can travel freely in Europe, but we still have border control. We want to be able to go to other Baltic countries and Europe more freely," Lillevali said.
In recent months, Baltic nations have undergone routine checks to ensure their Russian borders are able to cope with the stress of being the gateway between border-free Europe and greater Asia. Harbors and airports have also come under scrutiny from Schengen observers.
This week, as news of the timeline shift broke, Schengen inspectors were again combing the Estonian-Russian border. As well as passport control, police, tax, customs, consulates and migration systems have also been checked for compliance with Schengen standards.
Lillevali said Estonia had now done all it could to comply with the demands.
Once Latvian border points close due to Schengen requirements, more staff and resources will be shifted to the Russian gateways. Lillevali said that employees would not lose their jobs, but would be redeployed to other areas or departments.
On Sept. 7, The EU Council of Ministers plotted a new timetable for the completion of SIS II.
The EU said it would not be ready to integrate the information systems of new member states until June 2008.
"After the completion of SIS II in June 2008 an integration process will start, which will continue for at least three months. It is quite likely that checks on the internal borders in the Schengen area will be abolished at the beginning of 2009," said Mart Kraft, general secretary of the Estonian Interior Ministry, who took part in the meeting.
Kraft said the difficulties related to SIS II arise from the fact that it's one of the largest and most complex information systems in the EU, and that neither the EU nor the member states were able to foresee such complications.
While member states loudly expressed their disappointment at the delay, they also described the new timetable as realistic, since there is no sensible alternative to postponement, said Kraft.
After the proposals are reviewed and necessary corrections made, the Commission will present the new technical project of SIS to the justice and interior affairs council in October.
Schengen is the Luxembourg town where the major nations of Europe signed an agreement to remove their borders in 1985. The Schengen zone has now expanded to include most of Western Europe and Scandinavia.
Baltic nations are not the only EU newcomers inconvenienced by the delay. Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus are also awaiting admittance to the Schengen zone.