Germans have mixed feelings about open borders

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The Polish policeman shook his head when Liesel Richter presented her identity card at the Swinoujscie border crossing near the north-east German town of Ahlbeck.

18th December 2007

Berlin (dpa) - "It's out of date," he said. You'll have to turn back."

There will be no repeat of such incidents from December 21 when frontier posts are dismantled and passport checks scrapped along Germany's 900-kilometre border with Poland and the Czech Republic.

On that day, eight ex-Communist nations in Eastern Europe are set, together with Malta, to become members of continental Europe's Schengen system, which does away with internal passport controls.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was one of the first to welcome the November 8 decision by the European Union's justice and interior ministers to throw open land and sea borders.

He said the move had "a symbolic effect for the new member states of the EU that no longer have to live behind the Iron Curtain."

But not everyone in Germany shares Schaeuble's enthusiasm. Guenther Beckstein, prime minister of the state of Bavaria, said the move had come too soon.

"I would have preferred to wait another three or four years before border controls are lifted," he said, warning of "a considerable problem with crime" that was likely once the new measures came into effect.

Bavaria, one of four German states bordering Poland and the Czech Republic, is also concerned about procedures in these two countries for granting visas to nationals of non-Schengen countries, such as Ukraine and Russia.

Once such nationals have a visa there is nothing to stop them moving about freely within the Schengen zone, according to Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Hermann.

But it is the fear of a rise in crime that unsettles people most, particularly in Frankfurt an der Oder, a town of 87,000 that is the main east-west transit crossing between Berlin and Warsaw.

"They are worried that shoplifting and car thefts will increase, said Markus Derling, a local councillor. "There is a genuine concern among the citizens."

This view was echoed by Kerstin, a woman in her 20s who regularly walks across the border to the Polish town of Slubice to stock up on cheap cigarettes.

"I don't trust them," she said, referring to the Poles. "They're much poorer than we are. When they start coming over Frankfurt will soon be Polish," she told a radio interviewer.

"You'll get too many crooks coming across and flooding Frankfurt," said one man. "The problems in Poland and the other states of Eastern Europe are much greater than we imagine," added another.

Many people expressed the same apprehensions before Poland joined the EU in 2004. But things turned out differently. "Crime actually went down," said a spokeswoman for the local authority.

Police, meanwhile, are unhappy that up to 800 of 2,100 officers could be withdrawn from the area around Frankfurt when the border posts are closed and staff restructuring measures are introduced.

On November 22, hundreds of police demonstrated in Frankfurt an der Oder against the planned manpower cutbacks, which they believe will make the border more porous.

Still, the authorities are taking no chances. They plan to step up vehicle checks in a 30-kilometre radius on both sides of the border and increase joint patrols with their Polish counterparts.

The EU has provided more than 100 million euros (146 million dollars) for new scanners, sensors and communications equipment in order to make the frontier more secure.

"We will be on the lookout for illegal migrants or suspects involved in cross-border crime," said police official Martina Kessow. "We won't stop everyone, but will concentrate on pinpoint searches," she told German radio.

Officials say the open borders will also ease congestion at the Frankfurt-Slubice crossing, where tailbacks of 10 kilometres and longer are common towards the end and beginning of the week.

But the German Hauliers' Association does dot believe there will be a great deal of difference. "The drivers will no longer have to stop, but there will be a 30-kilometre-per-hour speed limit in force," said its president, Gerhard Ostwald.

And the Frankfurt an der Oder Chamber of Crafts is not worried about Polish plumbers coming in droves across the border to provide a cheap alternative to their German counterparts.

"We are not concerned at the moment because regulations that prevent Polish workers taking up employment in Germany will remain in force until 2009," said its spokesman, Fred Winter.


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