The series of successful referendums on European Union membership in the Central and Eastern European candidate countries means the expansion of the union is becoming reality. By May next year, the EU will have 10 new members. This means of course, that the outer periphery of the EU to the east will no longer be Germany, but Poland and the Baltic states, if all goes well. Further south, it will be Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia, and in the coming years, Romania and Bulgaria. Many of these countries are now taking steps to conform to the strict border and visa controls demanded by the EU. Is this merely pushing the dividing line in Europe further east and creating a new, expanded "fortress Europe"?
Prague, 16 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's borders are under threat. From illegal immigrants arriving by all available means of transport. From the massive import of narcotics. From criminals and terrorists moving to and fro.
But at the same time, inside the EU, there is free movement of goods and people. For instance, a Swede from the chilly northern city of Boden can travel to the southern Portuguese town of Vila Real, and -- if he can get a job -- can live there as long as he wishes.
To cope with these contrasting circumstances, the EU has developed the Schengen border-control regime. Named after the Dutch beach resort where they were agreed, the Schengen protocols basically provide for people coming into the EU to be checked once, at the first point of entry.
After that, within the terms imposed by his or her visa, the person who has entered the EU legally can move through the open borders of the Schengen states. The Schengen regime is installed in nearly all the current EU member states.
It is therefore vitally important that the outer periphery of the EU be as strong as possible. Now, with that periphery about to move dramatically eastward, it is creating new and difficult situations for people in Eastern Europe.
Take the borders between Poland and Ukraine and Poland and Belarus. Formerly Warsaw Pact partners, these countries have a tradition of lively cross-border trade, which contributes to local employment and national economic activity. Full Schengen controls would effectively end this way of life.
Referring to the Poland-Belarus borderlands, analyst Antoni Kaminski of the Institute of Political Studies in Warsaw told RFE/RL, "This is a very difficult problem because this is a border which divides countries which are close in demographic terms, close in cultural terms also, and [cross-border trade and] contraband was one of the main sources of income for both Belarusians living on the Polish side and Poles living close to the Belarusian border, because there is quite a large Belarusian population living on the Polish side -- about 200,000 people." Conversely, there are many Poles in western Belarus, because that area used to be Poland before World War II.
The Polish government had been due to impose visa requirements on travelers from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine starting on 1 July. But it has delayed that move until 1 October at the request of the neighboring countries.
What is in prospect is a set of special arrangements that will allow people who are regular cross-border travelers to preserve their ways of life. Analyst Ulrika Brandl of the University of Salzburg in Austria told RFE/RL, "It would be possible to have bilateral agreements, as we have in Austria, with Switzerland, and with other countries, just covering a special [border] area."
In Warsaw, analyst Kaminski said similar arrangements are being developed between Poland and its eastern neighbors. "We are trying to make it easy for people living close to the border to be able to cross the border. We are trying also to consider giving multilateral visas for 10 years for people who are businessmen or scholars and who keep close relations with Polish institutions. Therefore, we are trying -- while respecting the Schengen requirements -- we are trying to find ways not to make the border impassible, not to make it a really dividing factor between Poland and our eastern neighbors," Kaminski said.
As Kaminski noted, Poles know the misery of isolation and are anxious to avoid drawing new lines of division across Europe. "One of our important, I would say nearly instinctive motivations, at the gut level, is that Europe should not be divided, that while joining Europe, and participating in deepening European structures, we should also deepen our relations with our neighbors," he said.
Geneva-based migration specialist Damien Popolo said that as the EU's borders move eastward, the situation has the potential to become politically charged. "Politically, the issue is becoming very, very hot, in the sense that the last round of the [Group of Eight] G-8 that we had here [in Evian, France, earlier this month] and also the EU-Russia summit in St. Petersburg recently, one of the main requests of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was to allow visa-free travel of Russian nationals into Europe."
Popolo said he believes this is caused in large part by the change in the status of the Baltic republics -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Once Soviet republics, they will soon be behind the Schengen wall as new members of the EU.
"I suspect that one of the reasons for [Putin] doing this was that there is a very, very well-established path of migration or movement between Russia and the Baltic states, for example, and it would be a big blow to the way Russians move around if they now need a visa to enter countries such as Estonia, which were even historically part of their own state," Popolo said.
Popolo went on to point out that without special bilateral arrangements, another awkward situation would develop further south, between Hungary and Romania. As a result of post-World War I border redrawing, Romania has a large ethnic Hungarian minority.
"If you think about countries that historically have movement of people over borders, you think about, for example, Romania and Hungary. It is evident that it would be much harder for Romanians to move to Hungary than it was before because Hungary will have to apply Schengen protocols," Popolo said.
Hungary is set to join the EU next year, and although Romania is also a formal candidate for membership, its chances of being in the EU by 2007 look only moderate.
In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Diego de Ojeda said that many factors must be balanced in setting up the Schengen agreement along the periphery of the new EU. "You have to balance both interests here -- the interests of the people who live near the border, the interests of the states outside the union. You also have to balance the interests of the rest of the people in the European Union. And we must not forget that it is because of Schengen that we manage to have the full, free movement of people within the European Union," de Ojeda said.
He said it is not the intention of the EU to cause hardship to local populations. He pointed to the example of Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. "These things are being defined as we speak. But one very good example is Kaliningrad, for instance, where the regulations will change, and nevertheless Lithuania, the Russian Federation, and the European Union have managed to find and have agreed and successfully implemented specific arrangements that will ensure that regular travelers will be able to carry on with their duties and lives unaffected," de Ojeda said.
Noting Poland's ongoing talks with its eastern neighbors, he said they are following "precisely" the goal of trying not to disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens.
De Ojeda said all new EU members will be expected to bring their border controls up to Schengen standards as soon as possible. But until they do that, present border controls will not be removed between the old members and the new.