No-passport area adds 8 European countries
Expansion met with concerns, hope
By Christine Spolar
Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
December 20, 2007
KOPER, Slovenia – For the mayor of this small coastal city, the expansion this week of no-passport travel for Europeans from his port to others up and down the Adriatic Sea meant one thing: Think big. Think Europe. Think … Miami?
Two years ago, Mayor Boris Popovic began importing dozens of swaying palms to the docks and main square of Koper. He flew to boat shows in Miami and trolled resorts in Las Vegas. He glad-handed in Miami Beach, looking for a seaside sister city for support.
He studied what could give Koper, population 49,039, a competitive edge in Europe's tourism market. He took over the port's supervisory board, upended old shipping deals and signed new legal agreements that have already attracted scores of cruise ship stops, tens of thousands of new visitors and even aircraft carriers from the U.S. Navy.
Their first glimpse of Koper is just what Popovic imagined. Cankarjeva Street, the main drag in town, is now festooned with towering palms and jokingly called “Palm Avenue” by some locals.
“We needed palms,” said the one-time race car driver, who inaugurated the new coastline in September. “If you see a palm tree, you think the sea. … It's like Miami. I really like Miami.”
This Friday, the European Union expands once again in some practical and visible ways. The newest members of the Union — former East Bloc countries now well into fresh democratic starts — will become the new border region of what is known as the European Schengen zone.
From north to south, the border of the area in which most Europeans can move without passport control stops will shift about 400 miles east, with the instant inclusion of Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
The zone is named after the Luxembourg town of Schengen, site of the first agreement in 1985 to create the no-passport area. The agreement also provides for cross-border police cooperation.
Schengen signees include most EU members plus Norway and Iceland; Britain and Ireland are not Schengen signers.
The countries' inclusion in Schengen on Friday signals confidence in the stability in the newest market economies of Europe and packs a small psychological boost: Reminders of the old Iron Curtain will fall.
In Slovenia, a daylong celebration is planned, with a national ceremony that Popovic lured to his hometown.
The change also means beefed-up security along some border points with Croatia, which is neither an EU member nor a Schengen signee. Slovenia will have one line for cars from Schengen-member countries and another line for those from non-members.
There are concerns about terrorism, drug smuggling and human trafficking. But guards on both sides of the border shrugged about any increased threat because of the change.
“There was smuggling before and there will be smuggling now,” one Slovene guard said. “It is our job to stop it.”
Croatian workers and travelers said last week there was a scramble to apply for passports in order to cross roads that once were just neighborly property.
“If you don't have a passport now, you might want to get one,” said Ankica Markovich, who works for an import-export trade company on the border. “We really don't know if it will make a big difference yet.”
Other countries such as Slovakia see security as a huge part of the new European equation. Border guards there have been equipped with new snowmobiles and equipment to bolster the eastern border.
In Germany, protesters marched in the eastern border town of Frankfurt an der Oder, across from Poland, to confront the German interior minister who was visiting to discuss the Schengen expansion.
In Koper, the mayor has been blunt about problems that could arise because of looser borders in the region. He had been under investigation — and cleared this year — amid questions about his own business deals and tax issues since he was elected mayor in 2002.
“As we know, not everything is dandy in Europe,” he said in an interview. “We're going to see cheap labor come in. I can see what is happening in Italy — there's a lot of immigration from Romania, Bulgaria and the Third World. Italy has completely fallen asleep on that issue. … Not all of those people are bad, but not all of them are good either.”
As for his own primping and planning for Koper, he said he has no worries.
In 2006, cruise ships first started coming to Koper, and the number of stops has been steadily increasing, bringing in 30,000 visitors this year. Popovic is confident that tourism will keep growing.
“We didn't always know what to expect,” he said about Koper's aim to stand out on the new European map. “But we just started working as if we were already inside the European border.”
The palm trees, imported from southern Italy, are not indigenous to this gusty coastal town. Temperatures last week dipped below freezing. Popovic did to them what all Slovenes on the coast were doing last week:
He had them bundled up, swathed in cloth and webbing, against the cold.
“We're not going to be perfect,” Popovic said. “The goal isn't to make everything perfect. It's to make everything as good as possible.”
From invasion to free passage