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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » January 9, 2008
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Borders Come Down
January 9, 2008 By W.¯.    
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Checkpoints at Poland's borders with four of its seven neighbors were abolished Dec. 21 as the country joined the European Union's Schengen frontier-free zone, a move Polish leaders hailed as a historic step that marked the full integration of their country with the EU.

"A dream that 20 years ago seemed impossible has come true," said President Lech Kaczyński in a special speech broadcast by public television as checks were abolished on the country's borders with Germany, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"Integration is complete. Every Pole will be able to travel within Europe far and wide... The citizens of Poland are no longer second-class citizens of the European Union," Kaczyński said.

Polish politicians celebrated the event with their foreign counterparts. Kaczyński met with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus at Budzisko on the border between Poland and Lithuania, and Prime Minister Donald Tusk with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Porajów, a town where the Polish, German and Czech borders meet.

The latter ceremony was also attended by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Sokrates (Portugal was about to complete its six-month EU presidency), European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, European parliament head Hans-Gert Pöttering, and interior ministers from Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.

"The extension of the Schengen area is a triumph of freedom," said Tusk. "The bad times for Europe are gone for good."

Merkel said, "We are jointly experiencing a truly historical moment: after the enlargement of the Schengen zone, EU citizens may freely travel across 24 countries, from Sweden to Italy, from Portugal to the Baltic states."

She added that the removal of border controls means not only freedom of travel, but also freedom to meet and exchange opinions.

Pöttering said that no more border controls meant "the end of old Europe and the beginning of a new one." For Poles, joining the Schengen zone means easier travel to 23 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

The Schengen Agreement means the end of passport checks at Poland's borders with four of its seven neighbors. Some border guard posts will be moved from border crossing points to locations inside the country. However, it is necessary to have a passport or an identity card while crossing the border since border guards will patrol international routes and carry out random document checks.

Guards from the borders with Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany will patrol access roads to the borders, bazaars, railway stations, trains, hotels and student hostels, looking for illegal immigrants.

If foreigners from non-Schengen countries who are staying in Poland or come to Poland try to illegally travel to other Schengen states and are detained, they will be sent back to Poland under the re-admission principle.

Border guards will use "Schengen buses" that will serve as mobile border crossing points. The vehicles will be equipped with a computer connected to the Schengen Information System that holds data on wanted persons. They will also have equipment for fingerprint checks and drug detection mini-labs.

Officers will continue to clamp down on cigarette and alcohol smuggling, since the enlargement of the Schengen zone does not allow free movement of goods subject to excise tax.

Joining the Schengen zone offers Poland new opportunities for combating crime. Police forces from member countries have the right to arrest suspects who, while on the run, cross the zone's internal borders. It will be possible to send such people back to their country of origin under extradition rules or the European arrest warrant.

While checks on internal borders have been abolished, checks are being stepped up on the Schengen zone's external borders, that is, Poland's borders with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. These borders are patrolled by 10,000 guards and that number is to increase. Each border guard station monitors about 20 kilometers of border zone. More border crossing points are to open soon, one to Russia and three to Ukraine.

For Poles traveling to the east, the situation will not change significantly. However, Ukrainians, Russians and Ukrainians will have to pay more for visas and face obstacles in traveling west. A Schengen visa will cost the equivalent of 60 euros in Belarus, and 35 euros in Russia and Ukraine. The latter two have signed readmission agreements with the European Union. This means that they will take back people who illegally travel to the EU from those countries.

Also, bilateral agreements on small trans-border traffic will be in force on Poland's border with Russia and Ukraine. As a result, these countries' citizens will be able to travel up to 30 km inside Poland without the need to hold a Schengen visa.

Border crossing points will be reinstated in emergencies, for example, when there is a risk of terrorist attack, and also during the Euro 2012 soccer championships. Schengen zone citizens, including Poles, will continue to undergo checks at airports. That will change March 31, but only on flights to Schengen countries.

The Schengen agreement was signed June 14, 1985, and later modified. As of Dec. 22 last year, its signatories include 24 states. All EU countries except for Britain, Ireland, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria are part of the system, as are Norway and Iceland.
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