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Europe is open now, sort of. Passport control at Stockholm airport on the day Sweden joined the Schengen area, 25 March 2001. The event was marked by an information system crash.

Schengen is the real Europe

The Poles did not really feel they belonged to the European Union until 2007, when their country became part of the Schengen area. Now they are members of an exclusive club, which is still viewed as a paradise by the countries who have yet to join. A report from Polish weekly Polityka.

Published on 20 April 2010 at 10:23
Europe is open now, sort of. Passport control at Stockholm airport on the day Sweden joined the Schengen area, 25 March 2001. The event was marked by an information system crash.

In Schengen back in June 1985, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg endorsed an agreement to progressively abolish controls at shared borders, paving the way for the free movement of citizens from the EU and elsewhere which finally became a reality in March 1995. At the time, we felt like citizens from beyond the pale, and this feeling persisted after Poland's entry into the Union in 2004. We had to put up with border controls, while virtually everyone else belonged to a class of better Europeans who did not have to present their passports. We had to stand in line while they sailed on unhindered, and we could only dream about all the time and money we would save if we did not have bother with the immigration check points on the external borders of the Union.

Today we have joined this privileged class. When Poland entered the Schengen area in 2007, Poles who lived west of Warsaw no longer had to route all their journeys via Frédéric Chopin airport. It was much quicker to simply drive to an airport in Berlin. A short time later, we were also able to avail of flights from Berlin to Warsaw whereas before we always had fly there from Poznań or Szczecin. At the same time, Schengen brought down the barriers between the sister towns of Cieszyn in Poland, and Český Těšín in the Czech Republic, and gave a new lease of life to the lethargic region of Pomerania and the German-Polish conurbations of Zgorzelec-Görlitz and Słubice-Frankfurt — a European dream come true for the Poles.

Schengen exerts a powerful siren call

Of course, German police reported a marked increase in the number of car thefts in regions close to the border, but most people were pleased with the change and the boom in cross-border commerce, which boosted German business. Unfortunately, Schengen turned out to be bad news on the Eastern borders of Poland, where it had a negative impact on a hitherto flourishing trade with the citizens of Ukraine and Belarus. Residents there look back on the time before Schengen as a golden age in a region which is now among the poorest in the EU, and where people count themselves lucky if they have a job and a modest income.

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The opponents of the extension of the Schengen area insisted it would lead to an upsurge in immigration from the East, a spike in the crime rate, and a huge increase in the number of "gypsies begging in the streets" — extravagant claims, which turned out to be unfounded. That is not to say that immigration both legal and illegal is not a problem for the EU. Virtually every day, newspapers in Greece, Spain, Italy and France carry reports on the attempts of migrants to enter the promised land, and the EU border guards who make use of advanced technologies like heartbeat detectors to stop them. The Schengen area exerts such a powerful siren call, that some would-be migrants will resort to desperate methods: like the passengers in a Hungarian tanker truck who were discovered hiding in a delivery of cocoa powder on its way to a chocolate factory, or the Afghan man who nearly died from hypothermia in a refrigerated truck carrying a consignment of oranges.

A ticket to paradise

The European Parliament has adopted a directive with standard procedures for the deportation of undocumented aliens. Individual countries continue to exercise control over policies that deport or legalise the situation of migrants. States like Poland, which are located on the borders of Schengen, are obliged to arrest migrants and send them back to the country from which they entered the area. Border guards can conduct identity checks at any location and at any time of the day or night. Polish border police are now authorised to pursue offenders in Germany and vice versa. Criminals can no longer take refuge beyond borders. The Schengen agreement has harmonised police cooperation, policies on drugs and arms trafficking, and judicial and governmental cooperation on extradition and asylum rights.

For many people in the east, a Schengen visa is like a ticket to paradise (though there are others who complain that Schengen is like a new Berlin Wall erected by democratic Europe). And a Schengen visa is not easy to obtain: you have to justify the reason for your visit, and provide proof that you have a return ticket and sufficient financial means etc. All the data on visa application forms are checked by consulates linked to the Schengen Information System (SIS), and the procedure can take several days. Besieged by the mafia, and with a registration system that is under constant attack by hackers, the Polish consulate in Lviv is Europe's busiest outpost.

Swiss populists against Schengen

Since Poland entered the Schengen area, the requirement for more complex verification procedures has led to a 50% reduction in the number of visas issued by Polish consulates. Nonetheless, 99% of visa applications are approved by Polish authorities, who pursue a policy that is relatively liberal – certainly in comparison to France, which is notoriously strict. Now that it has joined the Schengen area, Poland is no longer a destination country, but a simple stopover on a journey to richer states: Germany, France, Switzerland.

When wealthy Switzerland joined the Schengen area at the end of 2008, the benefits of the agreement were somewhat overshadowed by a massive influx of Roms from Romania and Bulgaria, and Albanians from Serbia and Macedonia. There was sudden upsurge in the number of beggars on the streets and bridges of Geneva, and in the city's buses and trams. Local people complained about litter and a growing sense of insecurity. Switzerland's anti-Schengen populists wanted to ban begging and deport Roms and long-legged Slavic prostitutes. The Gypsies took them to court and they won — Schengen was vindicated.

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