Citizens and goods from the 10 new, mostly Eastern European members of the EU will be allowed greater freedom of movement as borders checkpoints are dismantled across the bloc.
Eastern Europeans will now have passport-free access
The European Union's newest member states are set to join the Schengen Agreement, which did away with passport checkpoints between members, by December 2007 or March 2008, depending on the country, according to a timetable adopted by EU interior and justice ministers Tuesday.
The agreement would lift land and maritime borders from Dec. 31, 2007 while those at airports must be lifted by March 30, 2008 at the latest.
Currently, 15 countries are signatories to the Schengen Agreement, including the oldest EU members except Britain and Ireland, plus non-EU nations, Norway and Iceland.
The Schengen zone was established by treaty in 1985 and removes border posts and checks between EU member states and a common "Schengen visa," which allows access to all the signatory countries. The treaty, however, does not cover residency or work permits for non-EU nationals.
Non-EU countries such as Switzerland also get access
The 10 new, mainly eastern European nations in the 25-member bloc were told last year that their Schengen entry, originally planned for 2007, was in doubt due to technical delays with an update for the EU's central visa information system.
Some newcomers, however, had said that the reasons were political rather than technical, charging old EU members of trying to block the eastern expansion of the border control-free zone.
The new countries to join will include nine of the 10 countries that entered the EU in 2004 -- Cyprus will continue checking passports -- plus Switzerland, which is surrounded by EU countries but is not a member.
Secure borders necessary
The 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004 have all ratified the treaty, but have not yet implemented it. They are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus.
Questions remain over incoming Bulgaria and Romania
The move will only take place, however, if the countries' external borders to the world outside the EU prove up to existing standards and when Europe's Schengen database can be expanded to accommodate them. Germany and France had insisted that the new member states also prove their non-Schengen frontiers are secure.
Under Tuesday's decision, the Schengen hopefuls will temporarily be allowed to link into the old visa database until the new version is launched in June 2008.
Costs for this interim solution are estimated at some 3.6 million euros ($4.8 million).
EU members will also have to take the formal decision to lift the borders, a move expected in the third quarter of 2007.
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