Millions of eastern Europeans will now be able to enjoy moving across the EU without a passport, from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic coast in southern Portugal.
The far Right says Germany will become a transit land for criminals from Ukraine, Russia, and the former Yugoslavia
German police lament the lack of a proper communication system
Hans, a 25-year-old German border guard, was putting his back into dismantling a roadside barricade, part of the border post that has separated Germany and Poland for more than six decades. “They shouldn’t be doing this so soon, according to my grandfather, who has seen the war and communism and thinks it’ll bring us nothing positive,” he said, sweating despite the sharp cold, near the border town of Frankfurt an der Oder.
“But I’m of the opinion [that] the fewer barriers the better, and we can’t discriminate against the Poles forever.”
Hans was talking just hours before the borders were due to be flung open with displays of fireworks, street parties, and brass bands, paving the way for Poland and seven other former eastern bloc countries and Malta to join the European Union’s borderless Schengen zone.
Hans, who declined to give his surname without the permission of his superiors, said his grandfather — a resident of Frankfurt an der Oder, which has been separated from the Polish town of Slubice physically and culturally since 1945 — had already secured his windows with meshing “to keep out the criminals” the 74-year-old now expects to come from the east as a result of the scrapping of controls.
Hans and his Polish colleague Witek, 40, take another view. “It’s a simple fact, I like travelling,” Witek said. “I’ve so far been to 10 countries in Europe. But there are quite a few left to tick off.”
Anna Maria Stankowska walked across the bridge between her native Slubice and Frankfurt on Thursday along with a long line of fellow Poles, some bringing mistletoe to sell in Germany, and Germans, typically carrying groceries such as cut-price Polish goose to grace their Christmas dinner tables.
Ms Stankowska, a 29-year-old marketing consultant who set up business in Frankfurt four years ago, said she hoped it would be the last time she would have to show her passport at the border and “for old times’ sake” would ask the guard for a final souvenir stamp. “It’s symbolic,” she said. “I’ve felt like a normal citizen of the EU since [Poland] joined in 2004, and I’ve travelled across the continent without needing a visa, but this is still a historic day, which I hope to tell my grandchildren about some day.”
As from Friday, Ms Stankowska and millions of other citizens of eastern Europe will become part of a club of 400 million who are able to enjoy moving across the EU without a passport, from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic coast in southern Portugal.
For years it was the Germans, many of whom had themselves spent decades under communism, who were seen to have the best advantages from the fall of the Berlin Wall. They drove into Poland and the Czech Republic for everything from their haircuts to their petrol and weekly grocery shopping, so advantageous was the cost disparity to them. Now the prices are so similar that the journey is hardly considered worth it for the paltry savings, such as the 10 cents on a litre of petrol.
Mood of uncertainty
Instead, for many in the German border towns along the 779-mile frontier with the Czech Republic and Poland, the mood is one of uncertainty. Security firms have reported that their revenue is up threefold on last year as people along the border erect steel security fences around their properties — fearful of reports that crime will increase. Those who can afford such an outlay have had house alarms installed, while police security experts have advised those who are worried but unable to afford the sophisticated options to go for the mesh covers like Hans’ grandfather.
“People are ordering sturdier doors and windows for their houses and flats like there’s no tomorrow,” said Thomas Seifert, who runs a security company in Frankfurt. “My business is booming like never before, which shows the extent to which people are frightened.”
Neighbourhood watch schemes have been springing up with even more enthusiasm than they did immediately after 1989, particularly in the regions adjacent to the Bohemian forests of the Czech Republic.
Worries that criminal hordes will invade from the east are most palpable, largely because the border area is a vaguely demarcated and hard-to-patrol region of forest and scrubland. Such fears have been dismissed by the ruling politicians as exaggerated.
In the town of Ebersbach, Christian Kretschmar, a retired medical consultant, has established the citizens’ initiative “Border Security.” Its members agree to swap information about any strange movements they observe, communicating via walkie talkies and with a direct link to the police. The group persuaded the local mayor to abolish the dog tax for those living in the border region so that they could acquire guard dogs at minimal expense. Here people are advised to pull down their blinds at night and to wrap barbed wire around their satellite dishes.
Signs on several of the houses read: “Beware! My Neighbour is Very Alert.” “Cars here are stolen as if they were cherries to be plucked from the tree,” Mr. Kretschmar said (nearly 40 disappeared last month). “Before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, there was hardly any criminality here. We were both living under communism, and we helped the Czechs and they helped us — they provided the sardines in oil and apples while we provided them with vacuum cleaners and kitchen appliances.”
But over the past two decades, he continued, the difference in standards of living between the two sides had grown considerably and this had led to large amounts of petty crime — from the theft of garden gnomes to cars.
“Now as the border posts are being shamelessly dismantled what we have to be on the lookout for is whether the tourists sitting in our cafes are really tourists or people trying to plan to break into our homes,” he said.
The far Right has relished the opportunity to stoke such fears, stressing that Germany will now become little more than a transit land for criminals from Ukraine, Russia and the former Yugoslavia. “The enlargement of Schengen means more foreigners, more criminality, more unemployment, lower wages,” said Holger Apfel of the German Nationalist party in a recent appeal for the border controls to be retained.
The long-standing dream that Europe would one day be borderless has for many turned into an angst-ridden scenario embodying insecurity and threatened identity.
Unsurprisingly, the outgoing German border guards have not wasted the opportunity to say how dangerous they believe the region is going to be without their presence. They recently demonstrated in Frankfurt an der Oder against the total abolition of the border controls, holding banners with slogans such as: “Open borders yes, but don’t give criminality and terrorism a free ride.”
“We’re not ready,” said the head of the German police union, Konrad Freiberg. “For this to work for a start we need to have a proper communication system between officials on both sides so together we have a hold on what’s going on, but we haven’t got it.”
While the EU has kitted out the Poles with digital radios the German police are bizarrely still having to make do with analogue walkie talkies.
The two systems are hopelessly incompatible.
Forgotten in much of the excitement is the fact that where the EU now ends is where the true “East” begins. The citizens of countries with which Brussels has an uneasy relationship — such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia — are now locked out of the new Europe by a new iron curtain, able to gain access only if their applications for expensive visas are successful. — ©Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2007