PRAGUE, TALLINN (Thomson Financial) – Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone expanded from 15 to 24 countries on Friday with the historic event marked by celebrations at a series of frontier posts across Central Europe. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania halted land and sea border controls at midnight Thursday (2200 GMT), becoming the first in a wave of new members of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone, officials said.
Border guard service and government officials in the three Baltic states told AFP that frontier checks had formally ended. The countries entered Schengen ahead of six other incoming member nations, thanks to their one-hour time difference.
In the Estonian capital Tallinn, authorities laid on a welcome for the first vessel to dock as the frontier fell, the Viking Line ferry Rosella which arrived at 11:45 pm (2145 GMT) after a three-hour journey from Helsinki, the capital of Finland which is an existing Schengen member state.
The disembarking passengers were serenaded by a seven-piece border guard as they stood patiently in line to show their passports to the grinning guards.
On the stroke of midnight, the guards left their booths and the gates were flung open, allowing the remaining waiting passengers to cross en masse.
The Estonian guards said they had mixed feelings about leaving their posts.
‘I’m sad. It’s a big change for me. But it’s a happy moment too,’ said Ursula Matt, who has worked at the port border post for 10 years, as she wiped away a tear.
Matt will lose her daily fix of sea air, because she is being transferred to Tallinn airport — where, as in other Schengen newcomer countries, checks will continue until March.
In Lithuania, the border service said checks had ended bang on time.
‘Border control has been abandoned. The roads are open,’ border service spokesman Giedrius Misutis told AFP.
The issue of timing had caused debate with Lithuania’s neighbour Poland, because of the two countries’ time-lag. Polish authorities in the end decided to operate ‘minimal controls’ for an hour on travellers crossing from Lithuania, before Poland officially joined Schengen.
On Lithuania’s border with Latvia, government officials cut a ribbon at a crossing post at midnight, and guards from both countries gave drivers gifts rather than scrutinising them.
In Latvia, Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins hailed his country’s accession to the Schengen zone.
‘This is a logical step for Latvia and other new EU member states towards further integration into the EU space,’ he said.
Membership of the now 24-country zone stretching from Norway to Portugal is particularly symbolic for the Baltic states, which were ruled by the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until they broke free from the crumbling communist bloc in 1991.
While citizens of communist countries such as Poland benefited from some freedom to travel — albeit tightly-controlled — most residents of the Baltic states had to obtain permission to travel even within their own country, and were rarely if ever allowed to go abroad.
People in Soviet-ruled Estonia, for example, faced special internal border checks when they went to the region’s Baltic Sea islands — in case they then tried to sail to freedom in Sweden or Finland.
The Baltic states were among the eight ex-communist countries which joined the European Union in 2004, ending the requirement for their citizens to obtain visas to visit western Europe.
Schengen membership is a bonus, since Baltic travellers — and European visitors to the three countries — will no longer have to show identity documents.
For Estonia and Finland, the end of maritime border controls is an extra boon.
Almost 9 mln people a year flit back and forth on ferries between Estonia and its neighbours, and while border checks are far from rigorous, they can be frustrating in the peak season.
‘For our passengers, it’s going to be easier. They won’t have to queue!’ said Monica Sutinen, a Finn who works on board the Rosella.
Schengen expansion will also ease the trip of ferry passengers who travel from Estonia to Germany, another existing member of the zone.
To date, passengers who began their journey in Tallinn had to disembark in Helsinki with their luggage in order to pass Schengen border controls, before getting back on the same ship to continue their journey to Germany.
The 1985 Schengen Agreement is an agreement among most Western and Central European countries which allows for the abolition of systematic border controls between the participating countries. By the Treaty of Amsterdam, the agreement itself and all decisions having been enacted on its basis had been implemented into the law of the European Union.
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