Expansion of EU’s border-free zone: open door to illegals?
Originally named after a wine-making town in Luxembourg, the Schengen zone has matured a lot since its inception back in 1985.
The harmonisation of border controls and cross-boundary police co-operation has proved to be one of the most popular policies of the European block.
Fifteen European states have signed up over the years, but this month's expansion is the largest since Schengen was conceived.
It will allow free road, rail and sea travel between older EU nations and ex-Soviet states.
New member states of the Schengen treaty
Slovenia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia plus the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia are to be joined by Malta in making nine new members.
Preparations have been under way for years to ensure each of the nine nations’ customs and border checks are in line with the existing members.
However, as passports will be controlled at fewer borders, there are concerns over illegal immigration.
Latvia's fringe position in the EU puts it on the front line.
“This has been anticipated as there will not be any checkpoints at the internal frontiers. We have already had several Romanian citizens with fake ID cards, both during the summer and autumn. It's expected that due to the expansion of the Schengen border-free zone the number of illegal immigrants will increase,” Andris Bulis, Chief Border Guard said.
The driving forces behind the block’s expansion insist it will help counter the problem with open access to information on a so-called ‘black list’.
In Austria, the government has angered its neighbours with plans for joint border patrols. They say this suggests Austria does not trust eastern European authorities to do a proper job.
Migrants caught trying to cross into the zone illegally will face an uncertain future in detention centres.
Alina, an illegal immigrant from Chechnya, says she came because of her husband who is in prison in Germany.
“The Germans say they're going to send him back. If that happens I'll never see him again,” she said.
While Schengen members are open to each other, they are not necessarily more open to the outside world.
The EU has erected a $ US 2 billion barrier of barbed wire along its eastern frontiers.
The move has raised protests among residents along both sides of the border – two decades after the Soviet collapse heralded an end to a divided Europe.
As the Schengen zone enters its next stage, optimists are calling it the end of the Iron Curtain, whereas pessimists fear a “Fortress Europe”.