Border controls will become a hassle of the past for nine more European countries as EU interior ministers agreed to expand the Schengen free-movement to the south and east at a meeting in Brussels.
The Schengen free travel agreement applies to both EU and non-EU citizens
"The council [of ministers] agreed that the conditions for the lifting of internal borders with nine new member states have been met," a council source told dpa on Thursday, Nov. 8.
The nine new Schengen members are: Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The move, seen in Brussels as an early Christmas present, will bring an end to long queues of people and road freight at borders, a problem that has grown into a priority for the countries since they joined the EU in 2004.
The first of the two conditions needed for joining was met by the nine in early September when the countries plugged into an electronic database that allows authorities to swap details on wanted people, objects or vehicles.
For the second condition, concerning the security of their borders with non-EU countries, experts have over the last year inspected the controls and described them, according to a draft EU text, as "satisfying."
The European Parliament must also approve nine countries' entry into the Schengen Agreement, but this is largely considered a formality.
Air controls to be relaxed in March
Restrictions at airports will be lifted next year
Thursday's decision applies only to land and sea borders. Passport controls at airports are to remain in place in the nine new members until the end of March 2008.
"This is a historical event and a moment of great joy -- not a threat -- for Germany," German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said.
Schengen is the term denoting a body of EU law granting greater freedom of movement for persons. It abolishes passport checks within its internal borders and establishes common external borders among members.
The expanded Schengen area will comprise 22 member states. Non-EU countries Norway and Iceland are in the Schengen travel zone, but EU member Britain has only agreed to participate in its provisions that concern police and judicial cooperation.
Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania and Switzerland, the latter which signed an agreement on its association with the bloc in 2004, are expected to fully join the border-free zone in coming years.