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Germany Proposes Global Travel Security System - 2003-11-01

Germany's interior minister, Otto Schily, says his country wants to set up a global travel security system with the United States to help combat international terrorism. He also cautioned former communist states getting ready to join the European Union that they may not be allowed to join the union's free travel arrangements anytime soon.

Speaking after a German-Hungarian forum and bilateral talks with his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest, German Interior Minister Schily had some disappointing news for Hungary.

He said countries such as Hungary would not be able to join what is known as the Schengen border control agreement anytime soon. Mr. Schily said these nations must improve their own border controls with their non-EU member eastern neighbors.

The purpose of the Schengen accord is to remove all controls at internal land, sea and airport frontiers within the European Union, to allow Europeans free travel and unrestricted movement of goods.

The Schengen agreement currently governs the free movement of people between EU member states, with the exception of Britain and Ireland. Two non-EU states, Norway and Iceland, also are signatories to the accord.

Mr. Schily warned that Hungary and nine other countries, most of them former members of the communist bloc, that are to become EU members next year may not be ready to join the Schengen pact within three years, as had been hoped.

It is something of a setback for Hungary, which had anticipated that entry into the European Union would mean borders between the West and several former eastern bloc nations would soon disappear as called for under the Schengen accords.

Mr. Schily says the Schengen area can be enlarged only if Hungary and other countries that will soon form the EU's eastern frontiers strengthen their borders with their own eastern neighbors.

Mr. Schily said Germany also wants current and new member states to harmonize their passport and visa controls with the system used in the United States.

The German interior minister says he has already agreed with the U.S. homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, on a global system for visa applicants and other travelers.

That system would involve biometric techniques, such as fingerprinting and eye-scanning, as well as personal details that would be part of an international database.

"One of our goals is that we come to an international binding standardization, so that we use the biometrics techniques in visas and passports," he said. "It's a very strong position. If we don't do this, we will have different systems that don't fit together. This would create a huge chaos, and that is something we should avoid."

Although these measures have been criticized by some civil rights groups, Germany says it hopes they will help prevent an influx of illegal migrants and terrorists into the EU and the United States.

In addition, allegations of corruption among eastern European border guards has added to reluctance to expand the Schengen area.

Earlier this week dozens of Hungarian border guards received prison terms averaging three years after they were convicted of taking bribes.