Friday, 21 December 2007

Bye bye borders

Poland and the other seven central and eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004 implemented the Schengen Agreement at midnight on 21 December.

As a result, Poland's borders with its EU neighbours (Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania) have disappeared. Cars, buses and trucks can cross into these countries without even slowing down. Theoretically, it will now be like driving from England into Wales, or from Florida into Georgia. In practice, border patrols will be able to flag down and spot-check vehicles with foreign number plates. Police will be able to continue cross-border pursuits up to 30km (20 miles) from the border.

Gone are signs like this one on the Polish-Czech border that I photographed in early May. Although it says STATE BOUNDARY CROSSING FORBIDDEN, already by spring this year there were no border guards posted at any of the checkpoints.

Above: A different picture however, on the Polish-Lithuanian border (at the end of the this road) in July this year. It was still being guarded by a patrol of well-armed Polish and Lithuanian border troops.

Old border controls still apply to airports until 29 March.

Still in place, and subject to more rigorous control, are the borders with Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast, Belarus and Ukraine. Once infamous for letting stolen cars from western Europe pass on through to markets further east, the European Commission has taken tough measures to ensure these borders are impervious to crime, smuggling and human trafficking. On three visits to the Bieszczady (south-east Poland, by Ukrainian border), I could see brand new equipment - Land Rovers, Honda scramblers, night vision kit, in use with the Polish border guard units. By the Belarusian border, the number of expensive cars on German, Belgian, Danish or Italian number plates heading east at high speeds has dwindled to a handful of genuine tourist vehicles.

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