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Europe

Enlarged EU Sparks Change Along Borders

Over 100 days have passed since the EU expanded to take in ten new members, who entered the bloc with a mixture of hope and euphoria on May 1. Change is perceptible along the new EU borders.

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The euphoria that marked EU enlargement hasn't all evaporated

Fireworks in Malta, loud church bells in Hungary, a sea of lights in Lithuania and an elegant waltz at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin -- that's how the European Union's largest enlargement to date was ushered in on May 1 this year.

But a 100 days later not much of the optimistic mood remains in Zittau, an Eastern German town located on the border triangle of Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. EU euphoria here seems as far away as Brussels.

Spezialitäten der EU - Schroeder, Miller und Verheugen essen Käse

Gerhard Schröder, second right, Poland's then Prime Minister Leszek Miller, right, and EU commissioner Guenter Verheugen in Zittau on May 1

"A mere blurb, a showy spectacle," is how Ralf Richter, CEO of a company specializing in rust protection in Zittau, described the enlargement celebrations, which saw German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder flying in to shake hands with the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic and breaking ground for a new street in Zittau.

But now the chancellor and the media circus are gone and "we aren't any better off with the street," Richter said.

For the past 10 years, Richter has been struggling with his firm in the region which suffers from an acute lack of infrastructure. Now he wants to find quicker routes to new customers behind the border.

"Change only through hard work"

But not everybody shares Richter's pessimism.

Just behind the border lies Zittau's partner city in the Czech Republic, Hradek.

Hedvika Zimmermanova, Hradek's deputy mayor, said she has no illusions about EU membership. "We weren't so naive as to believe that the EU would immediately make everything better," Zimmermann said. "That can only happen through hard work."

Zimmermann remembers the hectic days following EU enlargement.

"But ever since then -- and we knew that before -- everything's the same," she said.

Even the Czechs are hoping that the new streets promised by their leaders as the country was accepted into the EU, will soon be built.

Zimmernova, who has to deal daily with authorities from all three countries in the border triangle, however is glad about one aspect.

"I no longer need three-quarters of an hour over the border, rather just ten minutes," she said.

Imperceptible maybe, but change nonetheless

German and Polish border guards work side by side in this region, silently but harmoniously checking the passports held out through the windows by car drivers. A second check point tower is now no longer occupied.

Marktplatz und Rathaus in Zittau

Zittau's main square

"The personal hand-checked controls are very successful," said Arnd Voigt, the mayor of Zittau. He added that the opening up of the borders has brought several improvements, many of which aren't immediately evident to the people.

A wait and watch attitude is clearly visible in the Eastern German border towns since the EU's eastern enlargement. But the horror images painted by some politicians and economic experts of Eastern Germany -- sandwiched between the richer Western Germany and the new EU states -- being overrun by cheap labor haven't translated into reality.

"It's there for all to see that the fears were slightly exaggerated in the run up to enlargement," said Barbara Lippert from the Institute for European Politics in Berlin. She added that with limitations placed on eastern European workers and markets gaining access to Germany, the country's economy is picking up.

Cashing in on enlargement

Lippert also pointed out there's a reason why the EU's eastern expansion isn't much of an issue among the people.

"The expansion has been the result of years of preparation. Much has already happened on the economic front. May 1 was simply an act of political integration," she said, adding that there isn't much interest in the new EU members among the older EU states either.

"The people there have no real relation to eastern Europe," according to Lippert. "That, in addition to a rise in prices, is a real disadvantage for the new EU members."

But for some in "old Europe", eastern enlargement has presented unforeseen opportunities.

Zittauer Gebirge

Zittau's surroundings

The German authorities in Zittau are using the time to cash in on their new-found fame in the border triangle while the neighbors play catch-up. "We've never had so many tourists as at present," said Voigt, adding that former residents of Zittau are coming from as far away as Canada to visit.

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