PRAGUE (eTN) – Nine mainly ex-East bloc countries on Friday tore down their borders to join a European zone allowing 400 million people to travel from Estonia in the east to Portugal in the west without showing a passport.
“The free movement of people is one of the main rights of human beings,” European Commission president Jose Manuel Barrosso said as he hailed the addition of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia to 15 other states already in the Schengen Treaty zone.
Many European leaders have welcomed the pulling down of internal frontiers as a new sign of the continent overcoming its Cold War division. But many people have also expressed fears of increased crime and illegal immigration.
Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico sawed down the frontier barrier at the Berg-Petrzalka crossing point between their countries to start three days of commemorations for the landmark change.
“From midnight tonight, you can travel 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) from Tallinn in Estonia to Lisbon in Portugal without any border controls,” said Fico.
The Hungarian and Austrian interior ministers, Albert Takacs and Guenther Platter, dismantled the barriers at the Sankt Margarethen im Burgenland-Fertorakos crossing point, where in 1989 the two countries’ foreign ministers cut the fence that symbolized the Iron Curtain.
The Czech and Slovak interior ministers marked the elimination of police checks at Europe’s newest frontier at Stary Hrozenkov, formed when their two countries emerged from the 1993 split of former Czechoslovakia.
“I do not know if this frontier was useless or not, but we can rejoice at its disappearance,” Slovakian minister Robert Kalinak said.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were first to mark the midnight change. The central European nations followed one hour later, ahead of the Mediterranean island of Malta.
“This is a logical step for Latvia and other new EU member states towards further integration into the EU space,” Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins told AFP in Tallinn.
Authorities in the Estonian capital organised a border guard orchestra to welcome the first vessel to dock as the frontier fell, the Viking Line ferry Rosella.
The disembarking passengers were serenaded by a seven-piece band as they stood patiently in line to show their passports to the grinning guards.
On the stroke of midnight, the guards left their booths and the gates were flung open, allowing the remaining waiting passengers to cross en masse.
First through was Juliana Kravets, 13-year-old Tallinn resident.
“I want to travel a lot during my life. I’m happy Schengen came into force,” Kravets told AFP before being treated to a gift of gingerbread and a purple balloon.
The treaty also coordinates immigration and law and order policies within the so-called Schengen zone and the European Union estimates that about one billion euros (1.4 billion dollars) has been spent improving security on the new outer frontiers.
Britain and Ireland have not joined Schengen and new EU members Bulgaria and Romania are not yet allowed in. The passport free travel is not universally supported in the member countries though.
Germany’s GdP police union warned Thursday that the extension of the Schengen zone eastwards could unleash a crime wave. The lifting of border controls with Poland and the Czech Republic in particular was “an invitation to criminals,” union chief Josef Scheuring said.
Many Austrians also fear higher crime, according to a poll released by ORF public television poll which said 75 percent of Austrians opposed the lifting of barriers.
In Warsaw, the head of the EU’s border watchdog, Frontex, Ilkka Laitinen, warned that illegal immigration would be the price Europe paid for Schengen expansion.
Once people enter the zone, whether legally or otherwise, they would be free to move across all member states, he said.
Nevertheless, political leaders were eager to play down such fears.
Schengen “is not about criminality, it is not about insecurity or fear. It is a bigger zone of peace, security and stability,” the Austrian chancellor said.
The expansion has taken years of preparation, with newcomers obliged to join the Schengen Information System (SIS), which provides police and customs officers with information about people, vehicles or goods.
The 15 older signatories to the treaty were: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.