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Disappearing EU Borders Bring New Concerns Amid Joy for Free Travel

Next May, the map of Europe will change radically as the European Union expands eastward into former communist lands and the Mediterranean. The move will extend a zone of prosperity, and heal the Cold War divide. But as the union incorporates 10 new countries, it will also create new borders, and people living further east fear being stuck behind a new bureaucratic Iron Curtain.

European unity may still be a concept more of hope than of reality. But the freedom to wander around the continent is arguably the single most important change in European life in the last 50 years. It is this ability to travel freely that most distinguishes young Europeans' lives from those of their parents.

Most citizens of the European Union can now travel from country to country, without ever having to go through immigration controls or customs booths. And that privilege will soon be extended to the citizens of the bloc's new members.

Analyst Heather Grabbe of London's Center for European Reform says most citizens of the central and eastern European countries that will join the EU next year can already travel around the EU without a visa.

"What has not been removed are the actual border checks between the new member states and the old member states," she said. "So basically, you have to take your passport with you, and you have to wait in line at the border to have your passport and your car checked, before you're allowed to cross, for example, from Slovakia into Austria, or from Slovenia into Italy, or from the Czech Republic into Poland, and vice-versa, whereas you can travel from Germany into France and from Italy into Austria, without having any checks done at all."

Ms. Grabbe says citizens of the EU newcomer states will not be able to enjoy passport-free travel, like their western counterparts, before 2006 at the earliest. That is because their countries still have to meet the EU's criteria on border controls.

Still, EU enlargement has already meant and will continue to mean an extension of stability and economic growth to the new members.

Professor Jerome Sheridan, who heads the American University's Brussels Center, argues that the EU's eastward expansion acts as an incentive for countries further east or south to undertake the internal reforms they need to eventually join the union themselves.

"What happens as the EU enlarges is [that] other countries see this, and they want to be a part of it," said Professor Sheridan. "The greatest example of this that I can think of is, what is going on in Croatia and Serbia right now. … They chose to go back to the old ways of settling conflicts in Europe, that is, through war, while everybody else chose the path of joining the European Union. ... And the Croats and the Serbs have seen this, and now they're desperately trying to play catch-up, to become part of the club, as well."

As the EU's borders expand eastward, some countries gain and others lose out.

Poland has done its utmost to reach out to its eastern neighbor, Ukraine, and has privately advocated that the door to EU membership be kept open, until it is ready to join.

But Poland, as a newcomer to the EU, was obliged last month to impose visas on citizens of Ukraine, many of whom have relied on easy access to their more prosperous neighbor since the Soviet Union fell apart. As analyst Heather Grabbe points out, that is having a direct impact on people-to-people contacts across the borders.

"A lot of people just over the EU's new border depend on, trade with, and work in the new member states," said Ms. Grabbe. "There are several million people in western Ukraine whose livelihoods depend on that. And they are now cut off. It's much harder for them to cross the border. They have to go to towns, which may be a long way away to get a visa, and so on."

Economists say the new red-tape curtain will hurt struggling border-zone economies, by making it more difficult for small traders to peddle their wares across the frontier. Small-scale trade in everything from foodstuffs to appliances to gasoline along Poland's eastern borders is now worth $700 million a year. Since the imposition of the new controls, cross-border traffic has dropped considerably.

Poland's accession to the EU means that it and other newcomers will have to assume responsibility for sealing the bloc's still porous outer borders against smugglers of weapons, drugs and people. Officials in Slovakia and Slovenia say the flow into their countries of mainly Asian illegal immigrants has increased, as the date for their joining the EU approaches. Most of the illegal immigrants hope to reach more prosperous western European nations.

The EU and individual countries like Germany are providing money, equipment and technical know-how to help the newcomers upgrade their border controls. Poland, which has the longest eastern frontier, is required to have a border post every 25 kilometers - a total of 232 crossing points.

EU officials say there is no question of constructing a new Berlin Wall or an Israel-West Bank barrier along the bloc's eastern frontiers. Matthew Kirk, Britain's ambassador to Finland, says the borders should be tight, but also user-friendly.

"The challenge at the frontiers is constantly changing, and the criminals, the terrorists, the proliferators, the people-smugglers are constantly finding new ways through," he said. "The real difficulty of running a frontier is to stop the bad things from happening while, at the same time, allowing the goods and the people who need to cross the frontier to do so, as quickly and as easily as possible."

The European Commission, which runs the EU's day-to-day affairs, has proposed creating a border control agency to coordinate policies among the soon-to-be 25 member nations. But national governments are wary of relinquishing their control over immigration policy, because it is a hotly contested domestic issue in most countries.