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7 Nations in Europe Union Open Borders

March 27, 1995|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRUSSELS — In one of the biggest steps ever taken toward uniting the modern democracies of the Old World, seven Western European nations ended all controls on their common borders Sunday, opening an era of unrestricted travel between them.

"A political dream is now a step closer," began the main evening news in Germany, the most populous of the countries involved.

Fernand Herman, a member of the European Parliament who has campaigned for more than a decade to lift border controls, called it "an important day, an historic day. It has taken time, but now it is finally done."

Herman made his comments at Brussels' Zaventem International Airport, where several politicians had gathered after testing their new freedom by flying in from other European cities.

"It works," pronounced Karl von Wogau, another member of the European Parliament. "I have just arrived on the first 'domestic' flight in Luxembourg's history."

Non-European passengers arriving here and at other gateway airports in the new free-travel zone, however, were subjected to tougher immigration checks.

Under terms of the formal convention that took effect Sunday, anyone may now travel without a passport within the seven countries: Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Spain and Portugal.

Italy and Greece have already signed the accord and are expected to join the free-travel zone once they complete technical requirements needed to link up with a computer database shared by the participating countries. Austria is expected to sign the convention next month.

The five remaining European Union countries--Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden--say they have no immediate plans to join the convention, known as the Schengen Agreement for the village in Luxembourg where it was first negotiated.

While Herman, Von Wogau and their colleagues celebrated with champagne, there was surprisingly little euphoria among the traveling public and a conspicuous lack of back-slapping among Europe's most prominent political figures.

In part, this reflects the fact that controls on most of the land borders shared by the seven countries had already been reduced or removed altogether since customs checks ended with the advent of the single European market in 1993. The changes Sunday affected mainly airports, where passport controls had remained in full force.

But there were other reasons why the creation of the free-travel zone was met with mixed emotions.

Many, for example, worry that the absence of border controls will make life easier for international criminals and allow illegal immigrants to settle in the participating countries.

In Belgium, a nation so small that domestic air travel hardly exists and where flying without a passport is seen as akin to driving without a driver's license, some residents seemed distinctly uncomfortable with the lack of controls.

"People gain maybe one minute by avoiding a line, but at what price?" asked Emanuel Le Jolis, a businessman checking in at Zaventem for a flight to Paris. "In four years from now, we'll see the result of all this and it won't be good."

Indeed, the law-and-order dimension to the open borders is considered so sensitive in France that authorities there have said they plan to continue spot checks allowed during a two-month grace period provided by the convention.

To combat these public concerns, stricter checks have been implemented along the free-travel zone's boundary--quickly generating long waits and short tempers at several points Sunday. Traffic at one point along the Polish-German frontier reportedly had backed up several miles by midafternoon.

Air passengers arriving in Belgium from the United States on Sunday also were scrutinized more closely, although delays here and at other major airports were said to be far less severe than on land borders with former East Bloc countries.

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