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Nine more countries join EU's 'passport-free' zone

By Daniel McLaughlin

Presidents and prime ministers threw open snowy frontiers across the old Communist Bloc yesterday, as nine countries joined the European Union's area of "passport-free" travel.

The so-called Schengen zone now includes some 400 million people living in 24 states, after expanding at midnight to the EU's border with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, a move that critics fear will increase smuggling, people trafficking and illegal immigration.

"We are standing here at the border between Bratislava and Vienna to take away the most important symbolic barrier," said Robert Fico, the Slovak Prime Minister, who, with the Austrian Chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, sawed through a red-and-white frontier post separating their countries.

"From midnight, you can travel 4,000km [2,500 miles] from Tallinn in Estonia to Lisbon in Portugal without any border controls," declared Mr Fico, who hailed the abolition of passport and customs checks as a major boost to trade and tourism.

While most Slovaks and other east Europeans were happy to see travel restrictions lifted, there is less enthusiasm in countries such as Austria and Germany, where many people fear an impending crime wave.

Schengen "is not about criminality, it is not about insecurity or fear. It is a bigger zone of peace, security and stability", insisted Mr Gusenbauer, who has supported the expansion despite polls showing 75 per cent of Austrians oppose it. "When people go to Bratislava in 20 or 30 years, they will ask where the border was," he said. "It's a historic occasion following the destruction of the First and Second World Wars and the division of our continent by the Iron Curtain."

Austria borders four new Schengen members: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Malta are the others. Cyprus and non-EU member Switzerland hope to join next year and Romania and Bulgaria by 2011.

Britain and Ireland have opted out of the scheme, in which millions of euros have been invested along the EU's eastern frontier on equipment to detect the body-heat and even the heartbeat of people trying to cross illegally.

"These new Schengen member states ... are very well prepared, they have done everything to set up the border lines and to keep out of the Schengen area the people who should be out," said Max-Peter Ratzel, the head of Europol, the EU's police agency. "You see so many tourists, so many truck drivers, so many business people, nobody can seriously check everybody, it's not possible and not necessary," he said, insisting that it was more productive to focus police efforts on known suspects.

All states inside the "borderless" zone are obliged to provide data to the Schengen Information System, which allows police and customs officers to track suspicious people, vehicles or goods. New powers also allow greater cross-border surveillance and let police pursue suspects across international frontiers. All traditional border controls can be re-established temporarily in an emergency.

For the tens of millions of east Europeans for whom foreign travel was almost impossible less than 20 years ago, the removal of old border posts carried huge symbolism.

"An improbable thing has happened – in many areas Europe is becoming one state," said the former Polish president Lech Walesa, the co-founder of the Solidarity movement that helped topple Communism. "This is the way the world should look."

Belfast Telegraph


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