Europe celebrates expansion of borderless zone in the tiny town where it was founded
The Associated Press
Published: December 17, 2007
SCHENGEN, Luxembourg: In a small cafe overlooking the river where a landmark EU agreement abolishing border checks was signed 22 years ago, locals mused on life in a Europe without frontiers.
“I find it great, free movement. Always pulling out the papers, stopping at the border, that's not a good thing,” said Frenchman Georges Klein, a retired chef.
Klein knows all about it: Hailing from a French village just across the border from Schengen, he commuted to work to this hamlet in southern Luxembourg for 40 years before retiring and drawing his pension in France.
On Tuesday, envoys from 25 European member states descend on this village of several hundred inhabitants to celebrate the inclusion this week of nine new countries, most of them ex-Communist states in eastern Europe, into the Schengen borderless zone.
For the new eastern members, Friday's expansion marks one of the final steps in their transition from oppressed Soviet satellites to full-fledged EU members.
In the 12 years since seven EU nations enacted the treaty, the zone has extended to 15 countries, and Schengen has become synonymous with free movement one of the basic liberties stemming from EU membership, along with the single market and free circulation of goods.
Klein says it's all become part of his way of life.
“Now I only come here to have a drink, because it is cheaper over here,” he said. “And life is better. Petrol is cheaper; tobacco is cheaper; everything is cheaper here.”
The treaty was signed by France, Germany and the Benelux countries on a boat on the Moselle river that runs through this village on June 14, 1985. Back then, it enjoyed none of the fanfare it is generating today.
“It was not considered a big deal. Countries only sent a state secretary for the signing … No one could imagine at the time that this treaty would have such lasting consequences,” said Schengen Mayor Roger Weber.
Schengen was not picked by coincidence. Governments were looking for somewhere symbolic and chose this hamlet because it is wedged in the intersection of the three frontiers between Luxembourg, France and Germany.
Now the village complete with Europe Square, a Europe Museum and flying the blue and yellow flags of the EU has become the embodiment of the continent's unity.
Tourists travel here to see the steel monument to the signing and the unusual traffic signs pointing at Germany and France. They also tank up on cheap gas, the least expensive in Western Europe thanks to Luxembourg's favorable VAT rates.
Schengen is one of the most popular EU policies, allowing EU citizens to travel without having to stop at national borders and clear the customs.
It took the founding governments a decade to fully implement it, but now the right to travel passport-free and other related customs measures brings massive economic advantages to hundreds of millions of Europeans.
Under the picturesque vineyards overgrowing rolling hills that encircle Schengen, winemaker Lucien Gloden's cellar, full of Pinots and Rieslings, is one such beneficiary.
“Things are easier now for individual buyers, because they are allowed to take 90 liters per person across the border to their country,” said Gloden, a third-generation owner of Schengen's principal vineyard.
Previously, he said, limits were much stricter for his foreign customers, the majority of whom come from France, Germany and Belgium.
But with terrorism fears and clandestine immigration in the EU on the rise, some people have questioned whether lifting border controls with eastern Europe is such a good idea.
Sipping wine in the village cafe, Joseph Braun, a builder who does frequent business with incoming Schengen member the Czech Republic, was enthusiastic about the changes open borders have brought to Europe to a point.
“For goods, it's superb. As for people, I'm not so sure. Here we have no border any more. Just a little check of the people crossing the border, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad idea,” he said.