/ 21 December 2007

Leaders hail expansion of Europe free travel zone

European leaders on Friday hailed the expansion of the Schengen passport-free travel zone to nine mostly ex-East Bloc nations as a landmark moment for the continent’s integration.

”This is an historic moment for which we have been waiting for a long time,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in the small town of Zittau on the German-Polish-Czech border.

Border controls were abolished at midnight as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined 15 nations already in the Schengen Treaty.

The huge expansion means that about 400-million Europeans can now travel from the Arctic Circle in Norway to Portugal without showing a passport.

”To be able to move freely around 24 states … those of us who are a little older know that such freedom is not something we could take for granted,” said Merkel, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in the former East Germany.

Merkel and her Polish and Czech counterparts watched as a barrier was lifted to signify the scrapping of controls along 1 100km of shared borders, and scores of blue balloons were released into the winter sky.

”This is one further step towards European integration,” said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose country’s 646km border with Germany is one of the most bitterly contested in Europe’s history.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski also hailed the Schengen expansion as he attended celebrations at Poland’s border with Lithuania at the Budzisko Kalwaria checkpoint. ”This is a huge success for all of us … Schengen has become a reality,” he said.

Lithuania’s President Valdas Adamkus said: ”We are witnesses to how borders, that divided peoples and nations, are vanishing.”

For the Eastern European countries that became new Schengen members, tearing down the borders is a new step in their attempts to bury the last vestiges of the Cold War. The moment was marked by parties at border points throughout the night.

Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom hailed the opening of frontiers towards Western Europe as a ”restoration of freedom” for his country, which was on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain for nearly half a century.

The Czech and Slovak interior ministers marked the elimination of police checks at Europe’s newest frontier at Stary Hrozenkov, formed when their two countries emerged from the 1993 split of former Czechoslovakia.

”I do not know if this frontier was useless or not, but we can rejoice at its disappearance,” Slovakian minister Robert Kalinak said.

Along the Czech-German frontier and at Berg-Petrzalka on the border between Slovakia and Austria, newcomers celebrated with midnight displays of fireworks in freezing temperatures.

While they will immediately be able to travel across Europe by road, train and boat without showing passports, the nine new Schengen states will have to wait until March for controls to be lifted at airports.

The Schengen expansion has taken years of preparation and the European Union estimates that about €1-billion has been spent on improving security on the zone’s new outer frontiers.

But security services in some of the old Schengen states, notably Germany and Austria, have warned that the lifting of border controls could trigger a crime wave.

Allowing free travel across Germany’s borders with Poland and the Czech Republic is ”an invitation to criminals”, union chief Josef Scheuring said on Thursday.

Many Austrians also fear higher crime, according to a poll released by ORF public television poll that said 75% of Austrians opposed the lifting of barriers.

In Warsaw, Ilkka Laitinen, the head of the EU’s border watchdog, Frontex, warned that illegal immigration would be the price Europe paid for Schengen expansion.

But politicians have downplayed these concerns, giving assurances that police cooperation has been strengthened to allow cross-border surveillance and pursuit of suspects over frontiers. — Sapa-AFP