Schengen signals end of Hungarian border guard service
by Thomas A Tass
October 10, 2007
At the end of this year, the Hungarian border guards, whose somewhat checkered history goes back more than 100 years, will cease to exist when the country joins the European Union's Schengen border management system.
The history of the Hungarian border guards is as interesting as that of Hungary itself.
It wasn't until 1903 that the Hungarian government decided to establish a border police.
The responsibility of controlling the border of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from a historical retro perspective, could be viewed as a model of what would be commonplace in Europe a century later.
This arrangement worked quite successfully until the end of the First World War, when it was determined that there was a need to control borders for reasons associated with sovereignty and international politics.
The Trianon Treaty in 1920 demarcated the new borders of Hungary and prescribed that these borders were to be managed. As a consequence, the Hungarian government founded the Royal Hungarian Customs Guards for the defense of its borders.
In 1932, the Royal Hungarian Border Guards was established and it replaced the customs guards, which, in reality, were more military than civilian. Briefly before WWII, this organization was wholly absorbed into the national army, as part of a border sentry system.
After the Second World War, the protection of the borders and the control of cross-border traffic was the responsibility of the military and the Border Police, the latter being part of the national police service. On January 1, 1950, the army border guards were merged into the feared National Security authority (VH). This group was responsible for the development of an intensive border protection program that was initiated along the southern and western sections of the Hungarian border.
During this rather grim period of history, the purpose of this border protection scheme was not to keep people and goods from entering the country, but rather to keep Hungarians, or anyone else, for that matter, from leaving.
The border guards of that era were responsible for managing a fearsome 550 meter wide strip of land that was cleared and demarcated with barbed wire and electric fencing.
The most notorious and monstrous of these was built along the aforementioned southern and western portions of the border.
At its peak in 1957, there were 318 kilometers of deadly mine fields established along that sector. Only Border Guards were permitted to enter these borderland areas, and their activities along the border clearly reflected the political climate of the cold war years. This same organization, however, was directly involved, and played an important historical role, in the destruction of what Winston Churchill dubbed the “iron curtain.”
Significantly on Sep 11, 1989 the Hungarian border guards began opening border crossing points along its western sections and permitted some 60,000 East German citizens to enter Austria, and, ultimately, to travel onward to West Germany.
This was perhaps the noblest operation undertaken by the Hungarian border guard service. Ironically the opening of these borders would also initiate a chain of events that would eventually bring an end to the service itself.
By 1990 it was clear that, in order to become a member of the European community, the last vestiges of the post-Soviet structure had to be removed and replaced with western legal and operational standards.
In the first half of the 1990s, the border guards were reorganized, numerically reduced, provided with new equipment and more sophisticated training and, by 1997, new legislation completed the restructuring.
A noteworthy impact of these changes led to the end of conscription into the border guards, and the last of this took place in April 1998.
Border security organizations experienced tremendous challenges everywhere, as a consequence of the 2001 terrorist attacks, along with the exponential growth in transborder criminality and illegal migration, to name but a few issues.
The Hungarian border guards also had to cope with ever-increasing volumes of tourist traffic, along with the public's demand for more effective border enforcement and efficient processing of goods and people across the borders and through the Budapest airport.
In 2004, Hungary joined the European Union and legislative and constitutional changes were made in order to facilitate the accession to the community.
For the border guards, the central element of change was their removal from the country's military structure, and the expansion of their civilian policing roles.
Recently, the government of Hungary even abolished the Interior Ministry which had been the traditional home of the border guards and the police services.
As Hungary prepares to join Schengen, and the traditional borders with her EU neighbors Slovakia, Austria and Slovenia disappear, so too will the Hungarian border guards.
In January 2008, the Hungarian border guards will cease to exist and more than 10,000 officers and support staff will become part of the newly minted Hungarian National police service.
The government of Hungary has modeled this new organization along German and Austrian lines, where the border police and border guards in those countries have, over the past few years, also disappeared into their respective police establishments. Time will tell if this arrangement will be as effective and as efficient as it is billed by its architects.
Hungary will be challenged and severely tested by the EU, to see if she is up to meeting the new border security paradigms that will begin to emerge in 2008.
One merely needs to look at the map of Europe to understand the complexity associated with managing contiguous borderlands with seven other countries.
The external border of the EU will present a very different set of challenges for the new organization.
Nevertheless, the Hungarian border guard service will pass into history next January with very little fanfare, and a chapter in Hungary's tumultuous border history will be closed.
Picture: End of the frontier area. And of an era, too.