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EUROPEAN UNION

UK absent as EU leaders seek unity on 60th birthday

European Union leaders celebrated the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding treaties at a special summit in Rome on Saturday in a symbolic show of unity despite Britain's looming departure.

UK absent as EU leaders seek unity on 60th birthday
Photo: AFP
Meeting without Britain, the other 27 member countries will endorse a declaration of intent for the next decade, on the Capitoline Hill where six founding states signed the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957.
   
EU President Donald Tusk and the prime ministers of Italy and Malta greeted the leaders as they arrived at the Renaissance-era Palazzo dei Conservatori next to the Forum, for a ceremony long on pomp and short on real politics.
   
“There will be a 100th birthday of the European Union,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in an interview with German television ahead of the summit.
   
The leaders had the words of Pope Francis ringing in their ears, after he warned on the eve of the summit that the crisis-ridden bloc “risks dying” without a new vision.
  
The Argentine pontiff urged the leaders at a personal audience in the Vatican City on Friday to show solidarity as an “antidote” to populist parties whose popularity has surged in Europe.
   
The White House congratulated the EU overnight on its 60th birthday, in a notable shift in tone for President Donald Trump's administration, whose deep scepticism about the bloc has alarmed Brussels.
   
“Our two continents share the same values and, above all, the same commitment to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy, and the rule of law,” the White House said in a statement.
 
'Europe our common future'
 
The 27 are set to hear a series of speeches urging unity and leadership from Tusk, Juncker, Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni and Maltese premier Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.
   
But British Prime Minister Theresa May's absence, four days before she launches the two-year Brexit process, and a row over the wording of the Rome declaration underscore the challenges the EU faces.
   
Security is tight with snipers on rooftops, drones in the skies and 3,000 police officers on the streets following an attack this week in London claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.
   
The Rome Declaration that the leaders will sign proclaims that “Europe is our common future”, according to a copy obtained by AFP.
  
But mass migration, the eurozone debt crisis, terrorism and the rise of populist parties have left a bloc formed from the ashes of World War II
searching for new answers.
   
The leaders are deeply divided over the way forward almost before they have started.
   
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo only agreed to sign the declaration at the last minute, after bitterly opposing a reference to a “multi-speed” Europe favoured by powerhouse states France and Germany.
   
Poland, central Europe's largest economy, is concerned that as one of nine of the EU's current 28 members outside the eurozone, it could be left behind should countries sharing the single currency push ahead with integration.
   
Greece, the loudest voice against the austerity policies wrought by its three eurozone bailouts, meanwhile insisted that the document should mention social policies.
 
Protests planned 
 
The aim of the summit was to channel the spirit of the Treaty of Rome that Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and West Germany signed six decades ago to create the European Economic Community (EEC).
   
The treaty was signed in the Horatii and Curiatii hall of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, one of the Renaissance palaces that line the Michelangelo-designed Capitoline Square, and the political and religious heart of the Roman Empire in ancient times.
   
Police in the Eternal City will be on the alert not only for lone wolf attackers in the wake of the British parliament attack on Wednesday, but also violent anti-Europe demonstrators.
  
Around 30,000 protesters are expected to take part in four separate marches — both pro- and anti-Europe — throughout the day. Police plan to stop all traffic and declare a no-fly zone.
  
A grassroots movement led by former Greek finance minister and leading austerity critic Yanis Varoufakis will launch a new manifesto, with Varoufakis warning that the EU is “disintegrating” so fast it might not last another decade.
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‘Double processing time’: Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Germany, Austria and another of other countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

'Double processing time': Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors. EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 member states to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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