With champagne, symbolic gestures and optimistic speeches, European leaders celebrated the expansion of the visa-free Schengen zone on Friday, Dec. 21. Some also recalled their own pasts behind the Iron Curtain.
There were parties on the borders, but not everyone was in a party mood
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek all grew up in the communist East Bloc, where foreign travel was forbidden and contact with the West was closely monitored by the secret service.
For them, the accession of nine additional European states to the free-movement Schengen Treaty at midnight on Friday took on personal significance.
For Angela Merkel (right), the Schengen expansion had a special meaning
"We now have a Europe where passport controls from Sweden to Italy, from Portugal to the Baltic no longer take place," Merkel said at a ceremony later in the morning in Zittau, located where the Polish, Czech and German borders meet.
"For those of us who are a bit older, this is not simply a matter of course."
Tusk, who assumed state leadership in October following early national elections, called the event a "triumph of freedom." He and Topolanek symbolically sawed through a now obsolete border post.
Even Polish President Lech Kaczynski, known for his anti-European stance, called the occasion a "huge success" while speaking at a separate celebration on the Polish-Lithuanian border. Ceremonies were held throughout the night at former border points, with midnight firework displays in some locations.
Critics fear crime wave
"We have now succeeded in overcoming the most difficult border -- that of fear and anxiety," said Tusk in his speech in Zittau.
The Schengen expansion, however, has raised concerns among critics about a possible increase in crime.
The Schengen area may continue to grow over the next few years
Allowing free travel between Germany and its eastern neighbors is "an invitation to criminals," said federal police union chief Josef Scheuring on Thursday. Union members held demonstrations against the border-opening last month.
Frontex, the EU's border watchdog, has also warned that illegal immigration would increase as a result of lifting border checks.
Politicians have countered opponents by saying that security will be tighter and reminding that preparations for the expansions have been underway for two years.
"We will actually have an increase in security, not a decrease" said German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, referring to the mobile police units that have now replaced stationary border checks.
"The abolition of the border controls is of symbolic importance because we are turning the page on the division of Europe," he added, speaking from the site of a new joint German-Polish police center in the Polish border town of Swiecko.
Further expansion ahead
Bulgarian Prime Minister wants his country to join Schengen
The area is now made up of 22 EU member states plus Iceland and Norway. The nine new Schengen states -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia -- all joined the European Union in 2004.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivaylo Kalfin said on Friday that Bulgaria and Romania, which became EU members on Jan. 1, 2007, may join Schengen within the next several years, reported AFP news service.
"The realistic date for entering the Schengen Treaty zone is 2010 to 2011," he said at a press conference. "But that depends on how prepared Romania will be, since it would be odd for Bulgaria to join but to have a Schengen border with Romania."
Switzerland, a non-EU member, has expressed interest in adopting the Schengen Treaty in Nov. 2008.