Austrian borders fall, but not in hearts and minds

28th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

When the extension of the Schengen agreement entered into force on December 21, Austria ceased to be one of the bastions of the much-maligned "Fortress Europe."

28 December 2007

Vienna (dpa) - When the extension of the Schengen agreement entered into force on December 21, Austria ceased to be one of the bastions of the much-maligned "Fortress Europe."

Borders between Austria and four of its eastern neighbours -- the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia - fell, relieving Austria of the duty of protecting a 1,200-kilometre chunk of the EU's frontier.

It is no surprise that Schengen received a mixed reception in the country, with an officially jubilant national government facing a largely sceptical population, in particular in the border regions.

Surprisingly, however, given the critical and often xenophobic attitudes towards Eastern Europe harboured by a significant proportion of citizens, little room was given to public debate.

Local media seemed careful to downplay the event. Even Austria's usually rabidly anti-EU yellow press remained uncommonly silent on the issue, focusing rather on unrealistic demands for a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty.

Official Austria was upbeat, praising the event as an "European quantum leap" - although local politicians, with their ear closer to popular opinion, remained more cautious.

The Schengen enlargement was a substantive innovation with far-reaching effects, especially for people in neighbouring countries, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said. "We trust our neighbours to secure the EU's outer borders," she added.

Austria's rightists remained strongly opposed to the measure, however. Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache denounced the enlargement as an "evil Christmas present".

And populists of all political flavours warned that Austrians needed protection from illegal immigrants and workers, human trafficking, organized crime, and gangs of semi-criminal beggars.

"Theft tourism from the eastern countries has risen dramatically," a citizen of the border region of Burgenland complained. "Today they come in droves and take what they can get. And with the open borders it is even easier and with no risks involved," he said.

"The politicians in Brussels and our top brass don't care, but people living at the border are worried," he added.

Austria's police forces have agreed on close cooperation with their Eastern counterparts after December 21. For example, mixed Austrian-Slovak police units will patrol the border, trying to put a lid on organized human trafficking, Austrian police officials said.

Despite those assurances of trust, Austria seems not entirely convinced that its neighbours are up to the job.

The Austrian government has decided to keep 1,500 soldiers deployed on the country's eastern borders until the end of 2008, causing consternation in Brussels, with experts wondering why Austria had agreed to the enlargement in the first place.

Vienna's neighbours were equally annoyed, with diplomats grumbling about provocative action on the part of Austria. Austria's army has assisted in detaining illegal immigrants since 1990.

And the decision to extend the army mission also raised some domestic hackles, with politicians of all factions questioning the legal basis of the decision.

Soldiers were not to interfere in police action, but "watch the border region for illegal immigrants," Interior Minister Guenther Platter said. "We want to know that will be going on."

Police and soldiers will conduct checks and dragnet controls in the border regions. The authorities would watch developments, and then decide on further action, Lower Austria's powerful governor Erwin Proell said.

The measures were no "sign of mistrust towards the new Schengen members, but a precautionary measure," Proell added.

Some citizens took a more balanced approach, saying that the economy in border regions could profit, as they did after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

But for the Austrian on the street, concerns over increased crime rates seem to outweigh the advantages of convenient travel or cheap shopping trips across the border.

The Schengen extension will bring 80 million people into the Schengen region, which will then comprise more than 400 million people from Norway to Greece and Portugal to Lithuania.

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