Border controls between the current 15 European Union states and the 10, mainly eastern European, countries joining the EU in May will remain in place, at least until 2007, officials in Brussels said.

But in eastern European capitals like Prague and Budapest, officials are hoping that borders can be eliminated in 2006, as they want to do away as soon as possible with all traces of the separation from western Europe that was marked during the Cold War by the Iron Curtain.

While travel within the EU is mostly passport-free under the Schengen agreement, western Europeans travelling to a new EU state like Hungary will still have to present their passports to border police.

The 10 new states - the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia,
Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia - will technically belong to the Schengen agreement, which is designed to do away with borders within the European Union. 

But the implementation of the no-border policy that began in 1995 has had problems along the way, and the EU wants to iron out the wrinkles before they expand the policy to the new, mostly former communist states.

Information system

In order to guarantee security with fewer border controls, police, customs officials and the courts have reinforced each other with a computer system called the Schengen Information System, that helps to exchange information throughout member states on suspect people or cargo.

But the EU executive, the European Commission, has determined that the system's data bank is not big enough to take input from 10 more countries.

European Parliament in Strasbourg
is not geared up for incoming states
The system is currently in operation for 13 of the 15 EU member states, with Britain and Ireland not participating in Schengen, and for two non-member states, Norway and Iceland, which have dropped border controls with Scandinavian states that are EU members.

The EU has been working for two years on a new information system. 

But Tomas Heisman, the immigration expert for the Czech interior ministry, said: "We don't know when the system will be finished, maybe in 2006."

In Brussels, Commission experts said the system won't be online before 2007. 

Meanwhile, the EU is reinforcing what will be its new eastern border, facing unruly states such as Ukraine, Belarus and
Serbia-Montenegro.

Border security

EU candidate state Slovenia, a tiny Alpine country, has a
770-kilometre border with Croatia that will be an EU
border as of May 2004 when the 10 new countries are to join the Union.

The EU has allocated 960 million euros in aid to help the former communist countries joining the EU to fix up border posts and buy land vehicles, helicopters and sophisticated night-vision equipment.

They are designed to make more effective patrols to stop illegal immigrants trying to pass from their poor countries into the more prosperous EU. 

As of 2007, the EU's 13 Schengen states will verify if the new
information-sharing system works well and evaluate the border situation. 

They will then decide if the EU's new east is to become part of Schengen.