EU Expands Border-Free Zone Farther East

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Border controls along the old Iron Curtain from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic cease to exist from midnight Thursday as most of the European Union's former communist new members join the bloc's passport-free travel zone.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

It's a major step in their transition from Soviet satellites to full-fledged EU members, but has also triggered fears of a flood of illegal immigrants that could stick Europe with a crisis similar to America's along its border with Mexico.

The entry of nine nations into the EU's so-called Schengen area means citizens can travel by land or sea between 24 European nations from Portugal to Poland, Iceland to Estonia without facing border checks. The move has also forced the EU to tighten up controls on its new eastern borders to prevent infiltration by criminal gangs, illegal immigrants, and even terrorists.

"Together we have overcome border controls as man-made obstacles to peace, freedom and unity in Europe," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. He said the expansion of the open-border zone will boost trade and tourism, inject new life into border-region economies and end the hassle of frontier delays.

As a condition for joining, the new members have strengthened security on their borders with non-EU nations such as Ukraine, Belarus and Serbia. They have also linked into an information exchange system for police and border guards around the EU.

Such measures are needed because any illegal migrants from the less prosperous nations to the east would be able to roam as far as Paris or Madrid without any additional checks if they breach the EU's easternmost border.

"It would have been better to wait a year or two longer to abolish the border controls," said Joachim Herrmann, the interior minister of the German state of Bavaria. "It's all a matter of how well protected the border is from Belarus to Poland, from Ukraine to Slovakia."

The EU's former communist members have been introducing tighter controls on the eastern border since they joined the EU in 2004, with funding from their richer neighbors.

So far, it seems to have paid off. Michal Parzyszek, the spokesman for Frontex, a Warsaw-based EU agency that coordinates border management, says the number of illegal immigrants getting through has declined in recent years, although it's impossible to know for sure.

Poland's Border Guards say the number of people arrested trying to enter Poland illegally fell more than 20 percent over the past year, from 3,763 in 2006 to 2,973 in 2007. Poland bears the burden of protecting the longest external border among new Schengen countries — 736 miles facing Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Meanwhile, the EU's front line in the fight against illegal immigration remains to the south where thousands of poor Africans make the hazardous sea journey to the coasts of Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece, while would-be migrants from the Middle East and Asia take the overland route through Turkey and the Balkans.

Austria's Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer dismissed concerns the expansion would aid criminals or illegal immigrants as he symbolically joined Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico to saw through a barrier the countries' border.

"Schengen is not crime, not insecurity, not fear," Gusenbauer said. "Schengen stands for freedom, security and stability."

From the other side of the EU's external border, Ukrainians fear the tightened controls will cut them off from the West.

"I certainly don't greet this news with happiness," said Alexander Voitenko, 54, a Ukrainian scientist doing research in Warsaw. He complained that it's already more difficult to travel west since Poland joined the EU.

The Schengen agreement is named after the village in Luxembourg where it was signed in 1985 by France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to allow citizens to travel freely between them. Since then they have been joined by Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, as well as non-EU nations Norway and Iceland.

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta joined the EU in 2004, but have had to wait before gaining access to the frontier-free zone pending reforms to bring standards of their police and border guards in line with EU norms.

Source: AP

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