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Europe: EU Calls For Strengthening Control On East's Borders

By Ben Patridge

London, 13 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- EU politicians have been accused of "double speak" for extending a hand of welcome to the eastern democracies while at the same strengthening border controls to the east.

Eberhard Bort, a German academic who studies EU border issues, told a conference in London that there is an in-built contradiction between the rhetoric on enlargement and the reality at the eastern frontiers.

He says German and other governments have invested heavily since the fall of the Berlin Wall in improved checkpoints and controls aimed at deterring illegal immigration, smuggling and cross-border crime.

"Their political rhetoric was one of welcome and saying, yes, as soon as possible, we'll have you in the "Club". At the same time, you saw tremendous investments into checkpoints and into the hardware of frontier management for a frontier which, if you believed the politicians, would soon, sooner rather than later, become an internal frontier of the EU."

Bort says the increased spending partly reflects the need for solutions to "managerial problems" caused by an explosion of cross-border activity since the lifting of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

Road traffic across the Polish-German border in 1990/91 increased by 40 percent, and cross-border crime during the same period rose by 400 percent.

A total of 297 million people crossed the Polish-German border in 1995, almost three times more than in 1992.

Between 1991 and 1995, 48,000 people were arrested at this border, 35,000 of them illegal immigrants. Hundreds of forged passports were confiscated.

The number crossing the Czech-German border -- 59 million in 1991 -- had almost doubled to around 100m four years later. The pressure on the borders caused authorities to try to make them more manageable.

"You know, it used to be a sealed border, not completely sealed, but it was a very strictly policed border. That's why it got the name, Iron Curtain. So there was relatively little movement across that frontier. Now, all of a sudden, it was an open border. The sheer hardware on the border was no longer sufficient. New road lanes, new checkpoints had to be built, new investments had to be made."

One factor driving the new border controls are the Schengen Agreements among EU countries that seek to create a border-less political union by abolishing internal frontiers. The first Schengen pact, modeled on the relaxed frontiers already in existence in the Benelux countries, was signed by seven EU countries in 1985.The goal is the free movement of people and goods across the 15 EU member countries.

But politicians say the Schengen agreements can only be workable if the eastern frontiers of the EU are policed more rigidly, hence the stricter checks.

Schengen has big implications for the Central and East Europeans seeking to join the EU. Before they're given the green light, they'll have to prove they can control their own eastern frontiers as these, in effect, would become the EU's external frontier.

They will have to show they can prevent illegal immigration, crime and smuggling from countries further east -- from, say, Russia or Ukraine. This will be a "touchstone of their ability to join the EU."

Bort says, while the EU's border controls to the east have hardened, they have also softened or -- blurred -- because of the creation of "Euro regions" along the EU's eastern frontier. These are designed to further economic, environmental and cultural cooperation across the artificial former Cold War divide. Bort spoke at a symposium on "Borders in Europe," part of a three-week Central European cultural festival in London.