Schengen expansion: borders and battlegrounds
The Schengen border expands and the nine states which joined the EU in May 2004 are set to have equal membership of the European family.
17th December 2007Brussels (dpa)-When Poland's new Prime Minister Donald Tusk made his opening speech to parliament on 23 November, he was in no doubt as to the meaning of the Schengen zone's pre-Christmas expansion. "We will be guarding our eastern border on behalf not just of Poland, but of the whole Schengen zone. There can be no better proof of Poland's full membership in the European Union," Tusk said triumphantly, to applause from the house. For the nine states which joined the EU in May 2004 and are now set to join the Schengen passport-free zone on December 21, their accession to the EU's flagship free-movement area is a matter of national pride. Governments from Estonia on the shores of the Baltic Sea to Malta in the heart of the Mediterranean point to their upcoming Schengen membership as proof that they are accepted as equal members of the 27-nation club. As far back as 2001, Latvia's widely-respected former president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, talked of the joint goals of Schengen entry and euro adoption as "a historical reunion" of her country with Europe. Across the new EU, Schengen's future members see themselves as rightful members of a pan-European civilization who were cruelly divorced from it by 50 years of Soviet tyranny. Hungary was "an integral part of Western civilisation" and "assumed an intensive role and participated effectively in its development" in pre-Communist times, then-president Ferenc Madl said in a 2002 speech. Seen in that light, the new member states' accession to Schengen is a confirmation of their historical right to full and equal membership of the European family. But that view is not shared by many in Western Europe. Along the current Schengen border, which runs along the old Iron Curtain, many people in more affluent states such as Germany and Austria rather think of their former-Communist neighbours as beggars or even crooks. "Barely stolen, and it's already in Poland," runs a German rhyme coined in the 1990s, but which still strikes a chord for some today. The removal of border checks which Schengen brings is balanced by a far higher level of cooperation between Schengen police forces - including the use of a sophisticated Schengen-wide database. But that argument has had little impact on Germans living along the Polish frontier. There, local residents have warned of a "flood" of Polish crooks crossing the new passport-free border, and sales of alarm systems have reportedly soared. On the far side of the future Schengen zone's borders, meanwhile, some local residents are equally worried by what they see as the creation of a new "Iron Curtain." Under Schengen's rules, non-EU citizens entering one Schengen member are able to travel freely throughout the zone. That being the case, Schengen frontier states are under pressure from other members to defend their external borders as tightly as they can. And residents of EU neighbours such as Ukraine, Belarus and Croatia - all of whom currently enjoy preferential access to individual EU states - fear that the expansion of Schengen will cut them off from traditional sources of work, travel and trade. "People cross daily from one side to the other, to go to school, to work or to the fields. The (border) bridge is an artery for two peoples," Davorin Klobucar, a Croat tour guide who in August protested against plans to tighten border controls at Croatia's frontier with Schengen newcomer Slovenia, said. Ironically, despite the passions the issue has aroused, Schengen's expansion is unlikely to have much impact on the vast majority of EU citizens, whether in current or future members of the zone. EU citizens already have the right to travel freely across the EU, not just the Schengen area, and the Union's expansions in 2004 and 2007 did away with all but the most routine border inspections. And while residents of frontier areas fear a crime wave, German officials point out that crime levels along Germany's Polish border actually fell after Poland joined the EU in 2004. Indeed, the main beneficiaries of the expansion look likely to be Schengen residents who hold non-EU passports. Once Schengen expands, they will have guaranteed visa-free access to all nine new states. But as Tusk pointed out, the real impact of Schengen enlargement is not a practical one: it is symbolic. Ever since 2004, the EU's new members have claimed that the old ones have still not accepted them as full members of the club.
On December 21, one reason at least for those complaints will cease to exist.