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Europe

Germany Embraces its Eastern Neighbors

In the eastern German town of Zittau, leaders from Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic gathered to celebrate the removal of borders separating neighbors. But not everyone is convinced of the good news.

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Germany opens its arms to Poland: Foreign ministers Fischer (right) and Cimoszewicz.

The leaders of cold war foes Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic gathered in the German border town of Zittau to hoist the European Union flag on Saturday. No longer Cold War opponents, on May 1 the three countries symbolize the bridging of the east-west divide which had characterized Europe for so much of its recent history.

Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder welcomed his neighbors into the enlarged EU. "The division of our continent and with it the division of its citizens has finally been overcome," he said. "The people of central and eastern Europe are part of a closely knit family again."

Addressing thousands from the tri-border region, Schröder said a dream of many generations of Europeans had finally become a reality. Although he acknowledged that some people still feared a Europe without borders, he said there was no denying the political impact the joining of the eastern European nations would have on forging a joint social and foreign policy on the continent.

"Dear citizens, above all for those of you who are older and lived through World War II and everything that came after it, who would have thought 60 years ago that there would be a day like this, a day on which Europe is united and we have a chance to make Europe a place of lasting peace and prosperity," he said.

The dawn of a new Europe

Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who had traveled to Zittau for Saturday's border opening ceremony, said the accession was proof that past antagonisms had been overcome.

Spezialitäten der EU - Schroeder, Miller und Verheugen essen Käse

German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, second right, Poland's Prime Minister Leszek Miller, right, and EU commissioner Günter Verheugen eat bread and salt, a traditional greeting, given by girls dressed in traditional clothes, during the EU enlargement ceremony in Zittau, Germany

"The old Europe was one of xenophobia and war," Spidla added, describing the new Europe as one of "peace and unity."

"In 1989 the Iron Curtain fell, then came German reunification and today the EU is enlarging," the Czech leader said. "It think that's not a bad performance for 15 years."

Miller said "our great Polish dream came true today" and joined his colleagues in paying tribute to the peaceful revolutions in eastern Europe that buried communism and paved the road to a united Europe.

Linking up Europe

The three leaders then took up shovels for a symbolic first dig in Zittau of a road that will link the three countries and allow for the free travel of people and goods in the region.

"We have reached a point where borders do not matter anymore," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen, who was also in Zittau for the historic ceremony.

Further north, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his Polish counterpart Wlodwiermierz Cimoszewicz met on the bridge linking Frankfurt-an-der-Oder and Slubice. The two embraced in a demonstration marking the end of decades-old animosities.

Economic barriers still remain

But not all barriers have fallen. With the euro still not the official currency in the new member states for some years to come and the free movement of labor put on hold for up to seven years, Europe is not entirely united. It still makes a difference where a person comes from, and more importantly where a person works.

In the newcomer nations, celebrations were often dampened by fears of a loss of national identity and steep price increases as the smaller nations are swallowed in the large bloc. In the 15 older member states, worries of an influx of immigrants and loss of jobs to cheap labor further east prevented many people from seeing only the positive sides of enlargement.

The head of the German Trade Union Association, Michael Sommer, warned politicians across Europe to pay closer attention to the concerns of their citizens. Speaking at the unions' labor day rally in Berlin, he challenged politicians to go beyond the pro-enlargement rhetoric of the past few months.

"I can only warn our politicians to take the concerns of our people and those in the accession countries more seriously. They're worried about their jobs and social benefits," he told a crowd of several thousand protesters. "Let me spell this out very clearly: We're not content with just a couple of well-phrased assertions concerning the enlarged bloc's bright future and merry-making across the EU on this day!"

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