Momentous Day: Border Controls Vanish in Eastern Europe

By in Berlin

The number of European countries doing away with border checks expanded by nine early on Friday morning. Most of those joined were behind the Iron Curtain just 20 years ago.

Europe just got bigger. At one minute after midnight local time on early Friday morning, border controls vanished for nine more European Union members, many of them former members of the Soviet Bloc. Fireworks, cheers, music and speeches throughout the morning welcomed the expansion, which means that travelers can move from the far corners of Estonia all the way to the Atlantic coast in Portugal without once encountering a border guard.

"This is an especially beautiful moment," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a Friday morning ceremony at the German border with Poland and the Czech Republic. "It is a source of great pleasure that coming generations will experience open borders as the European normalcy."

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was also present, as was Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Barroso held up a border-crossing sign and referred to it as an archaeological relic. Border checks in airports will remain in place until March, however.

The ceremony was just one of many across Eastern Europe as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Malta all joined the so-called Schengen zone, as the open-border area is known. The Schengen Agreement is named for the village in Luxembourg where it was first signed in 1985.

There are now 24 countries -- including two non-EU states, Norway and Iceland -- populated by 400 million people in the border-free travel zone. Switzerland is set to join in 2008, with Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria likewise in line.

Not everyone is unreservedly ecstatic about the border openings, however. Even as the new Schengen states have been preparing for months to join the club -- with EU agencies helping them tighten up their eastern borders -- many are concerned that increased travel freedom will come at the price of decreased security. Indeed, Slovakia's entry to Schengen was almost delayed due to the difficulty officials were having in meeting security criteria on the country's rugged eastern border with Ukraine.

"The Slovakia-Ukraine border is the new pillars of Hercules," Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, told SPIEGEL ONLINE -- in reference to Hercules' mythic creation of the Strait of Gibraltar at the entrance to the Mediterranean. "It is a weak point on the border because it attracts people from all over, including people from Iraq and Russia."

It is not, of course, the first time that the Schengen area will have a border heavily pressured by those wanting in. For years, Frontex, an EU organization which coordinates cooperation among Schengen members and helps them with border security, has been synchronizing joint operations in the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands to help bring illegal immigration from Africa under control. The organization also helps with training in basic border security techniques.

Frontex director Ilkka Pertti Juhani Laitinen admits, however, that a lack of borders does make stopping criminals more difficult. "It makes it much more challenging," Laitinen told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Border control is a very effective instrument for stopping those who you don't want coming in. Without that, you have to have concrete suspicions before you can stop people."

Nevertheless, Schengen is well outfitted with an integrated database -- known as the Schengen Information System (SIS) -- that operates as a clearing house for information on all manner of suspicious characters, stolen documents and criminals, allowing a Latvian border guard to immediately find out why, for example, someone may have been turned away at the Italian border. While Schengen states are ultimately responsible for the security of their own borders, they all had to meet a strict list of criteria before being allowed in.

"Border checks are a method of securing borders from the 17th century," said German Interior Ministry spokesman Markus Beyer. "It's the cooperation and the sharing of information, through SIS for example, that is the most important part."

Most of those countries entering Schengen on Friday were behind the Iron Curtain just 20 years ago. The opening of the border between Germany and Poland -- one of the most contested in the past centuries of European history -- was of particularly symbolic importance. Security, in other words, was far from people's minds in Eastern Europe on Friday.

"Border-free travel is one of the big benefits of European Union membership," Brady points out. "Not being part of Schengen made them feel like second-class citizens -- until now. Symbolically, the opening of the borders is really important."

With material from AP

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