Caretaking free movement, security in the EU falls to new members along the Eastern frontier
The Associated Press
Published: December 19, 2007
KORCZOWA, Poland: The would-be intruders lurked just across the Polish border, hidden in a snow-covered field in Ukraine, but the heat of their bodies burned brightly as white spots on a guard's glowing green computer screen.
“Just rabbits and foxes,” the Polish border guard noted, using a joystick to zero in on the images, which next time could signal drug traffickers, illegal migrants, even terrorists.
A swath of the European Union's easternmost members nine new countries, most of them ex-Communist states join the bloc's area of borderless travel known as the “Schengen zone” this week. While inclusion gives them unprecedented freedom of movement, it also comes with an unprecedented responsibility to protect the 27-nation bloc's easternmost edge.
To prepare, those countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary have spent years beefing up their eastern borders with a range of advanced equipment funded heavily by the EU. They say they're ready to keep the line secure.
“The pressure is great,” said Col. Waldemar Skarbek, deputy commander of a border guard region based in the eastern Polish city of Przemysl. “But Poland is prepared; a lot has been done.”
The border posts, like the one in Korczowa, are equipped with thermovisual equipment, sensors that listen for the heartbeats of illegal migrants hiding in trucks, and electronic surveillance equipment meant to spot intruders. There are also tried and true methods like German shepherds, helicopters, jeeps, handcuffs and guns.
Come Friday, those easternmost countries, along with Malta, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, join the passport-free club, a moment they will celebrate with fanfare at midnight Thursday as a key step in the ongoing transformation of a new, united Europe.
“An improbable thing has happened in many areas Europe is becoming one state,” former Polish President Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who helped bring down communism, told The Associated Press. “This is the way the world should look.”
Land and sea checks along their common borders will be abolished in an area that will swell from 15 to 24 countries, though airport controls will remain in place until March.
That means a terrorist or drug trafficker who manages to breach the easternmost border would be able to roam as far as Paris or Madrid without any additional checks a fact that leaves some citizens and officials inside the EU worried. Many are also worried about a possible wave of illegal immigration.
“It would have been better to wait a year or two longer to abolish the border controls,” said Joachim Herrmann, the interior minister of the German state of Bavaria. “It's all a matter of how well protected the border is from Belarus to Poland, from Ukraine to Slovakia.”
Yet German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government firmly backs expanding the EU's border. Her interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, recalled “very similar fears in the 1990s before the Schengen opening, none of which were fulfilled.”
“Of course I take the concerns of the population close to the border seriously, although I cannot share them,” Schaeuble was quoted as saying Sunday in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Germany borders Poland and the Czech Republic to the east.
Poland, which views itself as a historical bastion of Western civilization against the East, bears the burden of protecting the longest external border among new Schengen countries 1,185 kilometers (736 miles) facing Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Though Skarbek and other customs authorities say that 10,000 Polish border guards and new equipment will prevent an increase in smuggling, they also acknowledged the challenges.
“Forged documents, like passports and visas, are of a very high quality,” Skarbek said. “And the number getting through is increasing.”
Europe will inevitably continue to struggle with would-be migrants from Chechnya, Moldova and other places plagued by violence or poverty.
Take, for instance, the borders between Kaliningrad, the poverty-stricken Russian exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania, a source of cheap cigarettes being smuggled into the West.
“There is a real war raging on and we are losing it,” said Col. Zenonas Zymancius, the chief of Pagegiai Frontier District for the Lithuanian Border Guard Service. “Our people are able to stop only small amounts of smokes smuggled in.”
A 16-year-old former Lithuanian cigarette smuggler, who only gave his name as Julius, told The AP that he stopped after a friend died this spring in a car chase while crossing with wares from Kaliningrad.
Nevertheless, he doubts the beefed up borders are enough to prevent the practice.
“They will never stop this,” Julius said. “We know exactly what each officer is doing at any time, where movement sensors and infrared cameras are installed.”
“People do this because there aren't many chances to get a job in my town. The only way to survive is join these guys. Then you can easily make 100 bucks per night, if you are smart. Or get killed, if you are unlucky.”
Associated Press writers Monika Scislowska and Marcin Zoltowski in Warsaw, Liudas Dapkus in Pagegiai, Lithuania, and Roland Losch in Munich, Germany, contributed to this report.