BERLIN – Europe edged a step closer to full integration today with the removal of many of the region’s last internal border posts, a move that will entrust the European Union’s nine newest members with policing its eastern frontiers.
With a series of ceremonies across the continent, the nine countries on the EU’s eastern edge which joined the union in 2004 will now take primary responsibility for screening many arrivals. European residents will be able to traverse most of the continent by road or sea without showing a passport or national ID card.
The expansion across most of Europe of the so-called “Schengen zone” is a move toward the long-held goal of many European leaders of a borderless Europe.
“I can define this as an historic event. Now, after the enlargement in 2004, we are granting European citizens from the new nine member states new freedom of movement, without controls, without showing passports,” Franco Frattini, EU commissioner for freedom, justice and security, said in a telephone interview.
“European citizens will be able to go from Lisbon to Tallinn without showing passports, and that is in itself a very great achievement: It is one of the pillars of European citizenship,” he said.
In the first few minutes of today, the free-travel area expanded to 24 countries with the addition of Estonia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, bringing a total of 400 million Europeans into the border-free zone.
Britain and Ireland, two EU members that opted out of the “Schengen zone,” say they prefer to keep control of their own borders.
While citizens from those nine new countries have already been able to freely enter any EU country, the new regime ends often-lengthy delays at the borders and makes it easier for non-EU citizens to travel freely across Europe.
“Krakow, Prague and Budapest have come closer,” Berlin’s Tagesspiegel declared Thursday. “But mainly: The Iron Curtain has finally fallen.”
The move has caused unease in some countries, where there is skepticism that the new border states, primarily Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, are up to providing Europe’s front line of defense against illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, smuggling and terrorism.
“For us, the opening of the border comes too soon,” said Josef Scheuring, a spokesman for Germany’s border police officers within the police trade union in the Brandenburg border region.
The state of Brandenburg shares a 120-mile border with Poland, and nearly 400 police officers there marched in a Nov. 22 demonstration against the new regime.