New Europe revels in Schengen's family reunion

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It is not often that Polish revolutionaries and Red Army veterans find something to agree on, but the expansion of the Schengen border-free zone on December 21 is breaking that mould.


20th December 2007

Warsaw (dpa) - "My family came from Lithuania, but my father never had the chance to go back there because he lived in a Communist state. On December 21, I'll go to the Lithuanian border - it's about setting the record straight," the speaker of Poland's parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, said in late November.

"My daughter lives in Brussels with my granddaughter, but I couldn't go and see them before because it's difficult to get the visa. As soon as Schengen happens, I'm going to see them," former Red Army Colonel Yuri, a Russian citizen living in Latvia who asked to be identified by his first name only, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The two men's histories could not be more different. The 55-year-old Komorowski became a pro-democracy activist in Communist Poland while still a student, joined the Solidarity movement in 1980 and launched his political career as soon as the Communist regime fell.

Yuri, a 64-year-old ethnic Pole, was born in the USSR during World War II. A fierce believer in Marxist-Leninist doctrines, he spent his working life training electricians in the Red Army Air Force, retired and settled in Latvia in 1987, and suffered financial collapse and psychological trauma when the USSR collapsed in 1991.

Since the 1990s, Komorowski has worked as a member of the Polish parliament, while Yuri - now a Russian citizen with a Latvian residence permit - has struggled to eke out his meagre pension by installing TV aerials and satellite dishes for his neighbours.

But the two men, so opposite in other ways, seem equally enthusiastic about the benefits the Schengen expansion will bring.

On December 21, nine states of the so-called "new Europe" - from Estonia in the north to Malta in the south - are set to abolish their border controls with the older, Western members of the EU.

As of that date, both EU citizens such as Komorowski, and third-country citizens with permanent residence permits in EU states such as Yuri, will be entitled to travel without a visa or passport check anywhere in the expanded 24-member Schengen zone.

For Komorowski, who as an EU citizen already has the right to travel freely anywhere in the 27-member Union, the significance of that date is, above all, emotional.

"There will be a stronger emotion for Poles once we join Schengen. It will mean re-establishing contact with countries we shared a common history with, like Lithuania - it's a return to normality for Poles and Lithuanians," he said.

Lithuania and Poland were joined into one state - the so-called "Rzeczpospolita" or Commonwealth - from 1569 to 1791. Their identities were so tightly intertwined that Poland's national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, began his magnum opus, Poland's national epic "Pan Tadesuz," with the words, "Lithuania, my fatherland!"

Yuri shares that feeling of reunion, but for him it is a personal one. His daughter and granddaughter moved to Brussels in September, and since then he has been reluctant to apply for a Schengen visa, fearing that his Red Army past might count against him - despite assurances to the contrary from officials.

"If I can go and see them in a month's time anyway, why spend the time and money applying for a visa? They might not even give me one," he said.

Across Western Europe, and in many of the states fronting the lines soon to become Schengen's outer border, many people have criticized the forthcoming expansion as making it either too easy for Eastern Europeans to enter Western Europe, or too hard.

But for those in the "new Europe" which once lay behind the Iron Curtain, Schengen means, quite simply, a family reunion.




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