Another success story for the Maltese public service

Another success story for the Maltese public service

On Friday, Malta will be achieving another major objective following its accession to the European Union three years ago. Its acquired membership of the Schengen area will effectively mean another important step towards European integration. In simple terms, for people leaving Malta to another Schengen country travelling will be rendered much easier without the need to queue for passport control.

What few people are aware of are the complex and extensive preparations that were required to eventually convince the EU Commission and all other Schengen member states that Malta has achieved the required state of readiness to join this area within which internal border controls have been lifted. Of particular significance was the assessment of Malta's immigration and border controls as had to be up to the required standard in order to guarantee the safety and reliability of the Schengen area's external borders. Thanks to the determined efforts of our immigration authorities we also managed to pass this important test with flying colours.

The initial preparations for the implementation of the Schengen acquis in Malta started well before accession to the EU. Taking into consideration the number of stakeholders involved, in November 2000 the Minister for Home Affairs appointed a Schengen Project Team to ensure a coordinated and holistic approach. Its principal mandate was to identify all requirements necessary to ensure Malta's compliance with the extensive Schengen acquis and, consequently, to draw up a detailed action plan. This strategic document focused on four main areas, namely: (i) infrastructure, (ii) capacity building, (iii) legislation and (iv) information technology and equipment. This illustrates the multitude and complexity of tasks involved and, hence, the need of effective and strong project management to ensure timely implementation.

Another important critical milestone in the implementation of the Schengen project referred to the successful outcome of the ambitious twinning project with the United Kingdom and Spanish authorities entitled Strengthening Malta's Capacity In The Areas Of Border Control And Asylum, co-funded by the EU. Through this project, a number of important issues, like the drawing up of a comprehensive training programme for officers working in these two areas as well as a report on the information technology capacity in relation to Malta's border control, were duly addressed.

In February 2005, following the issuance by the EU Commission of the timeframes related to the Schengen evaluations, as well as eventual accession if successful, preparations for the full implementation of the Schengen acquis were revamped under the leadership of the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs. The main objective of the ad hoc Schengen Accession Task Force, chaired by the author, was to ensure that Malta's state of preparedness was at an optimum level in connection with the various extensive peer evaluations conducted by experts from the other EU member states, the EU Council and the EU Commission that all Schengen-aspiring member states had to undergo. These evaluations focused mainly on such important areas as data protection, where Malta was cited as a case of best practice, police cooperation, police and border control computer systems, the sea and air borders and the consular offices from where Schengen visas will be issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the recently set up Central Visa Unit.

These changes will allow Malta to have the same level of internal and external security as any other large EU member state, with the Malta Police having access to the same databases on wanted persons and items as the police forces of the other Schengen members. The security systems and passenger flows of airport and seaport were also modified to reach these high standards of security and efficiency.

Thus, joining Schengen not only involved preparations at the airport and seaport but also in the way the Malta Police are able to have access to security information from the rest of the EU through the IT system known as the Schengen Information System.

The Malta Police are now also able to add to this security information and share it with the rest of the EU. A new office, operating on a 24 x 7 basis, called the Sirene Office, was set up within the International Relations Unit of the Malta Police - this will be a central point of communication with other police forces within the EU. This is a very important aspect in the fight against international organised crime. The process whereby Malta will join the Schengen area involved close coordination between the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry for Investment, Industry and Information Technology, especially in view of this project's high IT content. Hence, the critical role of the Malta Information Technology and Training Services Ltd (Mitts) especially with regard to the installation and use of the SISoneforall software produced and made available to the new Schengen countries by the Portuguese authorities.

Further support was provided by the Management Efficiency Unit from the Office of the Prime Minister through the appointment of a national Schengen project leader, a mandatory requirement for the member states aspiring to join Schengen. The Armed Forces of Malta were also actively involved in this project in view of their maritime border surveillance and control function.

As this task force's chairman, I cherish the teamwork and spirit of cooperation displayed by all stakeholders which has undoubtedly played a fundamental role in managing to achieve all our objectives within the extremely tight timeframes. Obviously, all this could not have been achieved without considerable effort and commitment from all involved and here a word of appreciation goes also to Malta International Airport plc and Viset Malta plc for their continued cooperation. There was considerable investment by the government both in terms of human resources as well as finance. Besides utilising local funds, Malta also benefited from funds from the Norwegian Financial Mechanism for the security systems for the Malta Police and the restructuring works at the airport. Malta is also set to benefit from the EU Transition Facility funds to implement the second generation Schengen Information System in 2008 and increase security in its consular offices.

Upon the lifting of the sea borders on Friday and the air borders at the end of March 2008, borderless travel will be the norm in respect of 23 states that will be forming part of the Schengen area. There will also be the advantage of being able to issue visas for the whole of the Schengen area where a traveller can start a journey in Malta and then proceed to other Schengen states, that is all the members states of the EU except for the Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the UK, but also includes Norway and Iceland, without applying for another visa.

In itself, Schengen membership is ample proof of Malta's highly-reliable and secure external border status as well as the efficient consular services. It also illustrates that, despite significant challenges and constraints, the Maltese public service can rise to the occasion and through a concerted and determined effort based on teamwork and cooperation manage to reach its objectives in an efficient and timely manner.

Mr Deguara is Permanent Secretary at the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs and chairman of the Schengen Accession Project Team.

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