FECL 23 (March 1994):

EUROPEAN SQUABBLING ROUND AFTER 'SCHENGEN' FLOP

The entry into force of the Schengen Implementing Agreement has been postponed for the third time and sine die. The decision was taken on 14 December by the Ministers of the Schengen Executive Committee, but made public only on 25 january 1994. Technical problems with making one of the agreement's main pillars, the common police computer-system SIS (Schengen Information System) operational, are blamed for the failure. However, squabbling among the member states following the announcement of the postponement indicates that political and commercial rivalries exacerbated by a lack of institutional and public control inherent to the Schengen process, are more likely to be at the root of the debacle.

Concretely, the SIS should allow e.g. a police officer in Belgium questioning a German suspect in Brussels to have immediate access to relevant information stored by the German police. Yet direct access is inconceivable as long as long as police and criminal affairs remain matters of national sovereignty.

The Schengen states therefore opted for a "two level" system, consisting of a ground level, the national databases, and a top level, the central support system, ensuring the exchange of the "filtered" information provided by the national systems.

In 1988, a permanent working group (PWG) was set up. The PWG's task was to monitor the realisation of the SIS' central support system, the C.SIS and to coordinate the construction of the national components, the N.SIS.

At a first stage, the technicians proposed a so-called "synchronic" communication standard, ensuring high-speed round the clock connection of the national data bases. But after political pressure from the Netherlands and Germany and against technical reservations of the French and the Belgians, the synchronic standard was dropped in favour of a more aged "asynchronic" standard, the X-400. The X-400 works like an Email-support, i.e. without a permanent connection between the various national bases, which makes it considerably slower.

In October 1991, contracts for the SIS computer were duly put out to open tender by the PWG. A consortium made up of the US company Arthur Andersen and the French computer group Bull won the bid. The technically motivated decision to entrust an American company with the setting up of the system, however displeased political decision-makers who wished to rely on purely European high-technology for a project as symbolic of European unity as the SIS. At German insistence, the then French Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, pressed the president of Bull to withdraw from the consortium with Andersen, obliging the latter to renounce its bid. Instead, a new consortium composed of the Anglo-French firm SEMA, the Bull group, and Siemens-Nixdorf in Germany got the contract.

In summer 1993, rumours about technical problems and threats of delays in making the SIS operational began to spread. But the Schengen governments hurried to dispel growing public concern by affirming that the system would be ready in time to implement the Schengen agreement's most symbolic and attractive element - the abolition of controls at the member states' internal borders, by 1 February 1994. As early as October however, the Schengen Executive Committee had asked two independent experts to assess the technical problems of the SIS. They soon came up with the following, quite apalling conclusions: "Though certain improvements have been achieved during the last months, the system is far from being operational in such a sensitive environment as the SIS", and: "It does not seem possible to determine whether the system will be capable of working operationally within the reasonable time frame of a few months or whether the magnitude of the problems identified is such that the system will never work according to the specifications of the contract. As a matter of fact, it appears totally illusory to consider that the system might be operational on the 1st of February 1994".

The experts' findings appear to be confirmed by field-tests with the SIS carried out at the beginning of this year at Frankfurt airport and the German-Polish border. They revealed serious adaption problems between the C.SIS and the German N.SIS and resulted "in the most total confusion", as a rapporteur of the French Senat underlines.

Since then, some experts believe that the system failure is beyond repair and that an entirely new system will have to be set up, which would necessitate 2 - 3 years.

On 25 January, only days before the announced entry into force of the Schengen agreement, the Schengen "Central Group" of high officials was finally forced to definitively admit the fiasco: the agreement would not enter into force on the planned date and, due to the complexity of the technical problems, it was unwise to set a new deadline.

The annoucement has triggered a seemingly unending flow of accusations and counter-accusations among politicians, senior officials and technicians of the member states involved.

The French have been suspected of trying to obstruct the Schengen process ever since the Gaullist hard-liner, Charles Pasqua, became Interior Minister following the victory of a center-right coalition in the French elections early last year. Clearly inspired by the old tactical wisdom that early attack is the best form of defence, they were the first to go public with their version of the story. A "mission of information" headed by Senator Paul Masson was mandated (on 10 December 1993!) by the French Senat to examine the setting up and the functioning of the Schengen Implementing Agreement. Obviously benefiting from broad access to insider information provided by Mr. Pasqua's staff, the mission presented a comprehensive report to the Senat on 25 January, the very day of the public announcement of the system failure by the Schengen "Central Group". According to the report, "the politicians imposed a poor choice on the technicians". The failure of the SIS is "less a technical failure than an organizational one". It results from "a succession of dysfunctions within the indistinct nebula of Schengen", without it being possible to identify the sole responsibilty of one of the parties involved.

Yet the rapporteur, Senator Xavier de Villepin, a party friend of Interior Minister Pasqua, does not fail to hint as to the true culprits.

After a lengthy description of the X.400 communication standard's deficiencies, the report underlines that the alternative "synchronic" solution "inspired by the French system" was heavily criticised by the Dutch delegation, "without any serious technical justification". And it was Germany, with the support of the then (socialist) French government, that insisted on a purely European consortium rather than the more efficient French-US bidder.

The Belgian Minister of Trade and European Affairs pointed out that, according to the Schengen agreement, France had sole legal and technical control over the setting up of the C.SIS. He refuted what he sees as the French report's attempt to "dilute into collective responsibility... a responsibilty indeed belonging to France alone".

European officials point to the French Interior Minister's "mysterious delay" in alerting his Schengen partners to the growing problems with the SIS and suspect that Mr. Pasqua withheld details of the software problems deliberately, in order to pursue his crackdown on immigration further.

Mr. Bernd Schmidbauer, state secretary of European Affairs at the German chancellery, blamed SEMA, the Anglo-French computing service group for failing to remedy system software problems. SEMA angrily dismissed both this and Dutch assessments blaming the Strasbourg-based C.SIS computer and in its turn accused national governments of not making their national computer systems compatible.

This triggered a statement of Mr. Schmidbauer putting the blame on the bad (i.e. French) management of the project and vigourously defending the quality of the N.SIS material furnished by the German company, Siemens.

Meanwhile, Portugal has informed its Schengen partners of its decision not to take over the next presidency. According to the Portuguese secretary of state for European Affairs, "the conditions necessary for Portugal to assume the presidency of the Schengen Group during the period in question with the efficiency and dignity that it deserves have not been met". Portugal, he said, could not assume "a badly prepared presidency" and refused "to enter into an exhibition game only to show who will become the first of all others".

The Schengen debacle could not fail to draw some malicious comments in Britain, an inveterate non-member state. Stressing the importance of maintaining control at EU-internal borders as a means of combatting terrorism and crime, Prime Minister John Major noted that, once again, this delay proved that his government was right in refusing "too much Europe too fast".

 

Sources: Rapport d'Information sur la mise en place et le fonctionnement de la Convention d'Application de l'Accord de Schengen du 14 juin 1985, French Senat, 25.1.94 (Mission report to the French Senat by Paul Masson (pres.) and Xavier de Villepin (rapporteur)), 55 p., in French; Belgian Ministry of Foreign Trade and European affairs: Entrée en vigueur de la Convention de Schengen: Etat de la question, Brussels, 2.2.94, 4 p., in French; The European, 21-27.1.94; Le Monde, 27.1.94, 15.2.94; Financial Times, 26.1.94; Libération, 2.2.94; Migration Newssheet, No.132/94-03.

 

See also in this issue: Opinion: "The Schengen debacle - a chance for a democratic turnabout?"