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Celebration, Some Frustration Marks 'Schengen' Expansion


Celebrations are being held across Eastern Europe as the European Union on Friday formally lifted border checks with nine of its newest member states, most of them former Communist countries. But despite the celebrations, there is concern the opening of the EU member borders could lead to a new Iron Curtain with non-EU neighboring states. Stefan Bos has more for VOA in this report from the Ukrainian-Hungarian border.

The European anthem played at the dismantled German-Polish border post was heard along several frontiers in Eastern Europe Friday. The removal of the checkpoints means EU citizens can now drive from Estonia to Portugal, without having to show a passport.

Shortly after midnight the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Malta joined the border-free "Schengen" Area.

The Schengen Area, named after a village in Luxembourg where the agreement to remove EU border checks was signed in 1985, now covers 24 countries and gives freedom of movement to 400 million inhabitants.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom have praised the move, but people in some non EU countries are not pleased.

On the border between Ukraine and Hungary the atmosphere is tense. Here in Ukraine, there are long lines of rusty cars and trucks adding to the irritation of the already nervous Ukrainian border guards.

Across the bridge is the Hungarian border, which is now one of the last frontiers between non-EU nations such as Ukraine and the EU's Schengen Area.

While those in the EU almost universally welcome the development, some critics claim the agreement could increase tensions with countries outside the Schengen zone.

That's why Hungarian Foreign Minister Kinga Goncz traveled to the Ukrainian side of the border where at least 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live.

Minister Goncz told VOA that she also distributed the first special permits, allowing people in border areas to travel freely across the frontiers for a distance of up to 50 kilometers, to visit relatives.

"We have been working very hard to provide in one hand more to provide a kind of security to the other Schengen zone countries," said Goncz. "It will be partly the responsibility of Hungary. And we also have been working very hard on keeping the opportunity for people to have a people-to-people contact. We have all kind of things which fit in this concept. We just provided the first travel documents."

Eduard Chuchka, a 37-year-old teacher at a local Hungarian-language school in this border region, sees this as a first step towards a better future for people living in Ukraine and other countries that are not yet part of the Schengen Area.

"I think it is a very good idea. Hungary made a choice to join NATO and the European Union and you see it is now merging with these Western countries," said Chuchka. "I hope very much that Ukraine will be in the same situation one day and that we will be also belonging to this club."

Hungary, which is now the front line of the EU faces a difficult task. It wants to maintain good neighborly relations, but it is also under pressure to increase border security. There is concern that criminal gangs will try to take advantage of the border free zone.

Illegal border crossing into the EU by people seeking better jobs is another worry. To try to deal with those issues, there have been EU fact finding missions, and authorities have increased border security, with special cameras and other measures.

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