The Opening and Closing of European Borders

Lost under all the speculation about American shoppers and the failing U.S. economy in the weekend before Christmas is the news that Europe has finally reunited.

German/Polish Border

You are probably thinking back to a night almost two decades ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, Communism collapsed, and Europe, you thought, had already reunited? November 9, 1989, was most certainly a night to remember — the night the process of European unification began. [For the sticklers among you, it *really* began decades earlier with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950.] It took another step forward in 2004 when 10 countries, eight of them from the “East,” joined the European Union. This process neared further completion Friday when the Schengen zone expanded to include nine of those ten countries (Cyprus the lone holdout).

The photo above shows the German/Polish border at Frankfurt (Oder)/Slubice, the cities where I lived and filled my passport with crossing stamps for over two years. As of Friday, there are no longer guards stationed at that checkpoint, no one keeping you from (stereotypically) filling your shopping cart with low-priced cigarettes and heading West or riding back to the East on someone else’s bike.

If you’re like me with a U.S. passport and penchant for peace and travel, this news is cause for celebration. Once you enter the vast continent of Europe, you can travel around freely almost everywhere, crossing borders without ever needing to show your passport again until you leave. This is doubly good for Europeans who can leave home with nothing more than the equivalent of a driver’s license before flying off to France, Estonia or Hungary for the weekend. But if you’re Russian or Chinese, Indian or Kenyan, you can expect visits to Europe to become that much more difficult. It all comes back to that largely unknown and poorly understood Schengen Agreement.

The European continent is criss-crossed with institutions, agreements and treaties regulating movement and trade. Everyone assumes these treaties are all under the auspices of the European Union, but many in fact are not. A search of the internet turned up a lack of a useful visual to explain the overlap — so I created for you, dear reader, a Venn diagram showing exactly how complicated the situation is.

European Constellation

Download this image as a PDF.

This image illustrates how faulty assumptions about a unified Europe can be. Someday, maybe 2014, this diagram will look a lot less complicated as “Eastern” states slowly assume the Euro and EFTA and other states join Schengen.

This standardization of border regimes and monetary policy is a boon to Europeans and first world visitors to Europe. Second- and third-world travelers, however, will find that many countries which previously had more “friendly” (or lax) visa regimes towards them are now nearly as off-limits as the countries of “Old Europe.” This is because the lack of internal border controls in Schengen states allows visitors from any point of entry to easily transit to those countries — such as Germany and France — which attract large numbers of illegal immigrants.

Since the vast majority of first-world tourists pose no immigration risk, we travel within the Schengen zone “visa-free” for 90 days. Tourists and businesspeople from countries posing an immigration risk now find Europe slowly shutting them out or making it ever more difficult to enter — an ironic phenomenon often referred to as Fortress Europe.

As an example, consider the case of Russians. Many have friends and relatives within the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania which became full-fledged Schengen members this week. Before the accession, Russians could apply to each country individually and were granted short-term visas relatively easily. Russian citizens, in comparison, are regularly denied visas to “Old Europe” and the United States because of immigration risk. Now that visa standards have increased in the Baltics as well, it will be nearly impossible for many of these previous visitors to gain entry for fear that they will illegally overstay their visas.

So while we rightly celebrate the coming together of Europe and the opening of borders on the continent, we should also remember that other borders are closing more tightly, creating more tension between the world’s gated areas of privilege and those outside looking in. Exclusion in the face of unification, and not the predicted increase in crime or immigration, is the story to watch from this week’s events.


6 Responses to The Opening and Closing of European Borders

  1. Jan says:

    Honestly, I do not even pay attention anymore to who joins what Agreement and who opens their borders to whom. Ignorant, I know. But I think a lot of people think the same way. “What do I care about Estonikistan and Latviania?”, many may ask.
    The thing is that one usually travels to see the neighboring countries, and that’s it. Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium… all of those were completely accessible before this whole EU talk. Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states may have been tougher to get into, but it was possible. I agree that it is so much easier now to travel everywhere, but with Iceland, Norway and the UK still having their own currency, it doesn’t feel that much different.
    After 9/11, on the other hand, travelling to the US has become a pain in the butt, even for homecoming Americans. The whole threat of terrorism will make this “Fortress Europe” even harder to penetrate for people from other countries. Next time I have to renew my passport, I’ll get one of those with “biometric” data in them. God knows what will come next.
    But hey, let’s see the positive side of this: finally, I can buy as many cigarettes as I want in Poland, and I can even steal a bike from them and bring it to Germany! Ha, that will show them!

    Question for you: Do you think it is easier now for people from the Baltic states to visit their relatives in Russia? Or would Russia tighten its borders to those (mostly Russian!) people as well?

  2. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I would argue that most Americans visit primarily the states bordering theirs as well, but that doesn’t mean we’re not all thankful we don’t have to show ID every time we cross state lines. That freedom of movement is in effect what is now possible on the European continent. You may not take advantage of it, but if you need or want to, it’s there. When should you and I head out on our cross-European road adventure???

    The feeling that “nothing really has changed” is probably not that uncommon among Western Europeans who have benefited from control-free movement for much longer than those in the “new” Europe who were long excluded from, well, almost everything (or, in your case perhaps, who didn’t travel so much back when the currencies were different and passports were checked in every country?). Additionally, Germany has since WWII behaved itself in order to “belong” in Europe, so these layers/markers of belonging are less significant than to other countries (even belligerent EU members like UK and Denmark).

    As for your question, Russian visa regulations follow largely tit-for-tat, so that when other countries ramp up entry fees or requirements Russia follows suit. I believe Russia will therefore make it more difficult for those from the Baltic states to get visas (that is to say, as “difficult” as it is for most Europeans to get visas to Russia). However, some of the ethnic Russians living in the Baltics may have Russian passports, easing their transit between the two countries. There is, however, generally less travel eastward than westward . . .

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. poetloverrebelspy says:

    You and others might find this statistical information on European tourism interesting. Page 3 shows where visitors to each country are coming from, page 5 where citizens of each country are vacationing.

  4. Jan says:

    Before the wall came down, the only countries I visited were Poland and the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia). Shortly afterwards, I not only travelled to West Germany or Austria (90/91), but visited France (94), lived one year in England (95/96), where I went by car (passing through the Netherlands and Belgium), which also enabled me to travel to Scotland. If I had desired a trip to the Shetland islands, and from there to Iceland, it would have been possible. I went on a trip to Norway in 98, passing through Denmark without any problems. All that time, I made regular visits to Poland for cheap gas and sometimes cigarettes or food items. In 2001, I went to see my father’s birthplace in East Prussia, close to the Russian border. We also went as far as the Lithuanian border, where it would have been possible for us to cross into the country. My point is that monetary differences and border controls have never been a problem for me after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Granted, it may be easier to cross the borders between countries within the EU (and Schengen) now, but somehow, the limits remain. They were just pushed a bit further, that’s all. Nowadays, it’s rather lack of money than the unwillingness to change it into other currencies that is preventing me from travelling excessively. 😉

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