Europe Expands Again
At midnight Dec. 21, the Schengen zone of open borders in Europe expands from 15 to 24 states. Citizens of Schengen member states no longer will need passports to travel in other member states, and coordinated policies on immigration, asylum and law enforcement will come into play.
Border controls with non-Schengen members will tighten even as all existing checkpoints between Schengen states will be closed down. While most Schengen states are EU members, Schengen is not an EU treaty.
Watch the Video ... *Europe's Schengen Zone Grows
Expansion of EU's border-free zone: open door to illegals? Concerns over illegal immigration are rising as nine new countries are joining the EU's Schengen zone, where persons can move freely without showing their passports when crossing internal borders.
The new members include some Post-Soviet states on Russia's borders.
Originally named after a wine-making town in Luxembourg, the Schengen zone has matured a lot since its inception back in 1985.
The harmonisation of border controls and cross-boundary police co-operation has proved to be one of the most popular policies of the European block.
Fifteen European states have signed up over the years, but this month's expansion is the largest since Schengen was conceived.
The Schengen treaty was first implemented in 1985 and has steadily expanded to today's roster of 15 countries, comprising Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
At midnight it will take in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Cyprus plan to join in 2008 or 2009, and Bulgaria and Romania in 2011.
For the states that only 20 years ago languished under Soviet rule, admittance to Schengen represents nearly as powerful a moment as when they joined NATO and the European Union. They are now fully integrated into Western political, economic, military and social structures.
There are three notable impacts beyond the obvious benefit of easier travel. First, if Europeans can now travel easily among Schengen states, they can now easily work in other Schengen states.
That will trigger a great deal of price competition as the newer, poorer members are able to compete with older, richer members for jobs. The result probably will be a taming of European labor inflation, offset by a surge in labor action in the older members.
Second, any extra-Schengen state that has a travel spat with one of the new Schengen members must now deal with the Schengen group as a whole. The greatest irritant will lie with Russia's Baltic exclave, Kaliningrad. Since Kaliningrad is cut off from Russia proper, all land connections must pass through either Lithuania or Poland now both Schengen states.
Finally, there is the issue of illegal immigration and crime. Open borders are just as good for criminals and human trafficking as they are for people wanting to vacation in a foreign country for the weekend.
The festivities kicked off when Alfred Gusenbauer, the Austrian chancellor, and Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister, ceremonially demolished a border post between their two countries.
The new regulations officially came into effect from twelve midnight on Thursday night, when Poland's eastern border became a large part of the new Schengen frontier. West of it, passport controls are to be torn down.
The prospect has caused uproar among German police on their country's border with Poland at Frankfurt Oder, which until now has marked the outer limit of the Schengen zone.
They fear that Poland's security forces will be overwhelmed by the new arrangement.
"The Poles are doing their best, but the task is impossible," said Lars Wendland, a spokesman for a union of border police at Frankfurt Oder.
"Schengen will increase illegal immigration massively here. Our motto is Free Entry: Yes. Crime and Terror: No."
German border police, many in uniform, have already held protests against the German authorities, who are cutting security staff on the border zone with Poland by almost half, to 1,250 officers. Their protests have been supported by their Polish counterparts, who are meant to be enforcing the new Schengen zone.
In a letter to German border police, Polish officers claim to "understand your [German police] fears regarding the major restructuring of the border police at the German Eastern frontier".
"We also share your worries about an uncontrolled influx of terrorism and crime, which will no doubt represent a danger for the establishment of a 'new European order' in the framework of the Schengen treaty."
The joint concerns of the German and Polish police forces are reinforced by worries over the Schengen II computer system, which is intended to provide detailed information on those crossing the border to member police forces.
"We were promised by the EU that we would only open borders if the Schengen II database had been established," said Mr Wendland. "But it's not running yet."
The officials' fears, coupled with the scaling back of Germany's own border police, have left some residents of Frankfurt Oder in a state of panic.
From today, the narrow concrete grey and blue bridge that spans the river Oder and links Frankfurt with the Polish town of Slubice will lose its array of passport booths and vehicle checkpoints.
The steady traffic between the two sides seems placid and friendly. But both Poles and Germans worry about the future under Schengen.
"For most people here, the border has functioned as a kind of security filter," said Jolanta Pekowska, a Polish woman who has lived in Frankfurt for six years.
"I wouldn't mind if the border controls were kept up, to the contrary."
Joerg Vogelsaenger, Frankfurt Oder's MP, said that border controls would in effect have to be replicated, but deeper into German territory, making them harder to carry out.
One of Brussels' biggest-ever projects, the creation of a constitution for a United Europe, was brought to a crashing halt recently by French and Dutch voters.
Analysts conclude that the main reason for their rejection of this project was fear over the pace of expansion, which was seen as threatening their economies with low-paid labor, creating overwhelming immigration flows, and endangering well-established social protections.
The EU foreign ministers decided it is too early to pick up the pieces and to see what, if anything, can be rescued from the constitution.
"It was a bridge too far," Pypers said. "The European leaders should have recognized that after the 'big bang' of [the 2004] enlargement, the European public were not very keen to face [so soon] another big European project."
Even with the current 25 members, EU structures and mechanisms will certainly need streamlining if the bloc's policies are to be coherent.
And those problems would only grow were membership to increase further to as many as 30 which would be the case if the current aspirants were admitted.
Despite these shortcomings, however, there is jubilation over the open borders between east and west. In Hungary, even those in favour of Hungary staying out of the EU had reason to celebrate, albeit for different reasons. While for many the Schengen Zone represents the freedom of movement between east and west, for some it represents a redress of sorts for past injustices.
For instance, some Hungarians view the open borders between Hungary and Slovakia as a reunification of sorts of those territories that were lost to Slovakia at the end of the First World War and in which large Hungarian minorities live. On a more practical level, families which had been separated for decades by politics are now able to once again re-establish frayed and lost ties.
As a result of this, many in Hungary are now hoping that Romania will soon join the Schengen Zone. Transylvania in Romania is home to the largest Diaspora of Hungarians. Likewise, there is hope that Serbia will soon be invited to accession talks, culminating in EU membership and ultimately being a part of the Schengen Zone.
While generally there is jubilation at the opening of borders throughout Central and Eastern Europe, some have reservations. For the same reason that some see the opening of borders as a reunification of sorts, others see this same opening of borders as a threat to their national security.
Not everyone regards the way in which events had turned out a century ago as entirely negative.
Nor is everyone is so happy about open borders between east and west. Many Austrians lament the loss of their border control posts with Hungary and other new member states. They fear an influx of criminals and refugees coming from the east.
Indeed, many within the new member states are perhaps a little too optimistic about the meaning of open borders. For one, borders between east and west are not irrevocably open; they can be closed at any time for any reason. A case in point is the soccer championships co-hosted by Austria and Switzerland next year. Austria has already announced its intention to reinstate the border crossings during the event.
If the fears of Austria and other countries of the negative aspects to allowing new members states to join the Schengen Zone are realized, then the euphoria of open borders between East and West may be short-lived.
It must be remembered that not all EU member states are a part of the Schengen Zone: Britain and Ireland, for example, have stayed out precisely because of fears over national security.
The idea of open borders is a nice one in theory, but the concept of a united Europe still has a long way to go yet.