`Borderless' Europe expands to the east

Newest members of EU get security responsibility

December 21, 2007|By Christian Retzlaff and Kim Murphy | Christian Retzlaff and Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN -- Europe edged a step closer to full integration today with the removal of many of the region's last internal border posts, a move that will entrust the European Union's nine newest members with policing its eastern frontiers.

With a series of ceremonies across the continent, the nine countries on the EU's eastern edge, which joined in 2004, will take primary responsibility for screening many arrivals. European residents will be able to traverse most of the continent by road or sea without showing a passport or national ID card.

The expansion across most of Europe of the so-called "Schengen zone" is a move toward a long-held goal of many European leaders: a borderless Europe.

"I can define this as an historic event. Now, after the enlargement in 2004 we are granting European citizens from the new nine member states new freedom of movement, without controls, without showing passports," said Franco Frattini, EU commissioner for freedom, justice and security.

"European citizens will be able to go from Lisbon to Tallinn without showing passports, and that is in itself a very great achievement: it is one of the pillars of European citizenship."

In the first few minutes of today, the free-travel area expanded to 24 countries with the addition of Estonia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, bringing a total of 400 million Europeans into the zone.

Britain and Ireland, EU members that opted out of the "Schengen zone," say they prefer to control their own borders.

While citizens from the nine new countries have been able to freely enter any EU country, the new regime ends often-lengthy delays at the borders and makes it easier for non-EU citizens to travel freely across Europe.

"Krakow, Prague and Budapest have come closer," Berlin's Tagesspiegel declared yesterday. "But mainly: The Iron Curtain has finally fallen."

The move has caused uneasiness in some countries, where there is skepticism that the new border states, primarily Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, are up to providing Europe's front line of defense against illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, smuggling and terrorism.

"For us, the opening of the border comes too soon," said Josef Scheuring, a spokesman for Germany's border officers within the police trade union in the Brandenburg border region.

The state of Brandenburg shares a 120-mile border with Poland, and nearly 400 police there marched in a Nov. 22 protest of the new regime.

Scheuring said the number of border officers in the state will be reduced from 1,600 to 800, though there is not yet full communications integration with the Polish border guards.

There already has been a significant increase in drug trafficking along the border, even with German border stations fully staffed, he said.

"Mayors of border towns are concerned that gangs will cross the border without being checked, commit crimes in eastern Germany and then vanish back," Sebastian Edathy, head of the German parliament's committee for internal affairs, told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Nations in the Schengen zone have access to a computerized network that alerts them when someone has been refused entrance. A major upgrade of the system is scheduled to be completed next year.

Officials in the new member states say they have completed a rigorous, $1.4 billion upgrade of their border controls that includes new fencing, patrol vehicles, computer systems, personnel and training.

Andrzej Gras, an adviser in Poland's office for European integration, said his country received a positive report in a recent international evaluation of controls on its eastern border.

"Some of the members of the committee said the Polish eastern border is better secured now than the German border was when the Schengen system started in Germany 12 years ago," Gras said.

But with the new free travel provisions, he said, all countries of the EU will have to remain vigilant to enforce their own regulations on employment. The new provisions do not remove individual nations' controls on who may live and work within their borders. While EU citizens may freely travel to other members of the union, the generally may not stay longer than 90 days without obtaining a residence or work permit.

About 1 million Poles have emigrated to work outside the country since it joined the EU in 2004. Many of them, Gras said, work illegally in Berlin, which is within commuting distance of the Polish border.

Removal of the border posts could encourage more to make the short trip, he said.

Christian Retzlaff and Kim Murphy write for the Los Angeles Times.

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