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EUROPE: Schengen Brings East Closer to Europe

Touristclick Latvia Travel News

EUROPE: Schengen Brings East Closer to Europe

by Zoltán Dujisin

As passengers sit in the Soviet-era train connecting Csop to Zahony, Hungary, a tense individual in his late twenties enters each compartment, lies on the floor and glues cigarette packs under the seats of travellers, who watch indifferently.

During the five-minute crossing, passengers chat undisturbed, and fail to inform controllers and customs guards who walk through the two wagons to check passenger documentation. Once the train has entered Hungarian, and therefore European Union (EU) territory, the anxious man returns to collect his cigarettes. "Are you sure you got them all?" asks an amused passenger before getting off the train.

That incident occurred a little more than a year ago on one of the allegedly best guarded eastern borders of the EU. But now the governments of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia are committed to securing their borders ahead of joining the EU's Schengen area Jan. 1, 2008.

This will mean a borderless stretch of Europe that will connect Portugal to the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian borders. But above all, it will be perceived as another accomplishment for the eastern European member states, who complain of second-rank EU citizenship.

Cigarette smuggling, illegal refugee crossing and organised crime, sometimes with the complicity of border officials, have thrived on the eastern borders of the EU, but the countries concerned have stepped up efforts to improve border control, and EU officials have by now deemed the countries ready to join the Schengen area.

While the removal of borders could intensify people trafficking, it will also give many central and eastern Europeans the chance to travel freely within the union without passports.

The Schengen Treaty on the free movement of persons was signed in 1985 by Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Germany. It came into force only in 1995. Other EU members joined later. Now, all members of the EU except Britain and Ireland will be part of the system, plus non-EU members Norway and Iceland.

The Schengen countries will be connected through the Schengen Information System (SIS), which includes information on wanted persons, stolen or lost documents, stolen cars, and names of individuals denied entry into EU countries.

The expansion of the system, which can only be accessed by authorised personnel, will require a tightening of asylum laws. Foreigners applying for visas will have to submit biometric data.

Initially, border controls between old and new Schengen countries will be replaced by joint and bilateral police patrols, and the transition will proceed cautiously.

"Schengen does not automatically abolish all border controls. Austria has expressed a wish to continue monitoring its borders -- and public security could be evoked in order to temporarily close them," Svetlozar Andreev, political scientist at the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid told IPS.

"Control could also occur within states -- Germany being such an example -- they have hi-tech police forces with cameras and computer equipment, and may intercept lorries and cars driving on German highways," he said.

Airspace borders will only be abolished on Mar. 29, 2008. That will require airports to reorganise the passenger reception systems.

But besides contributing to uniting European countries in a common market with free movement of goods and persons, Schengen may impose new and artificial barriers between border communities in Eastern Europe.

Ethnic Hungarian minorities living in Serbia, Ukraine, Croatia and Romania will face additional hurdles in entering Hungary. Similar difficulties will be experienced by Slovak and Polish minorities in Ukraine and Belarus, for whom visa policies had been fairly liberal.

Local governments on both sides of border communities are requesting the introduction of visa-free crossings for people living up to 50km from the border.

EU rules allow for such regimes to be implemented, but the need for negotiations might delay the set-up of special border control regimes.

The EU has also signed an agreement simplifying visa procedures and providing free visas for Ukrainian and Russian students, journalists, invalid people and artists. But the Eastern European EU members would like this to apply to all people from Ukraine and Belarus.

Other central European communities will be relived over implementation of Schengen rules. In southern Slovakia, historically a part of Hungary, a 500,000 strong ethnic Hungarian minority will be drawn closer to Hungary.

If Hungary welcomes the development, the same cannot be said of Slovakia, with whom Hungary's relations have become considerably strained over the past year due to alleged mistreatment of Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians.

When Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány said the border between Hungary and Slovakia "will cease to exist", many Slovaks who celebrate the border with the southern neighbour as one of the greatest achievement of Slovak statehood, were far from pleased.

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