In Europe, Opening Night at the Border

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 21, 2007

HRADEK NAD NISOU, Czech Republic -- For more than 60 years, this remote stretch of bottomland was one of the most closely guarded sectors of Central Europe.

The borders of three countries -- Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic -- intersect here along the Neisse River. For as long as anyone can remember, the rhythms of life on all sides have been regulated by a dense network of security depots, road barriers and immigration checkpoints that were originally designed to keep people out and prevent others from leaving.

On Friday, however, each of the crossings will finally go dark as borders are thrown open here and along frontiers that had separated Eastern and Western Europe since the end of World War II. The last vestiges of the Iron Curtain will disappear.

With fireworks and speeches, the switch began shortly after midnight Friday at multiple crossing points up and down the long frontier, as people crossed from country to country freely, no questions asked. At the frontier between Austria and Slovakia, leaders of the two nations ceremonially hand-sawed through a red and white border barrier.

For the first time, travelers have the freedom to drive east from the Algarve coast of Portugal all the way to the edge of Russia without encountering a border guard demanding proof of identification.

"It will be a monumental event," said Martin Puta, mayor of Hradek nad Nisou, a town of about 7,500 people. "It will not only mean the end of border controls, but also the end of a psychological barrier."

Europe's border-free zone has been expanding gradually since 1985, when Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg agreed to allow one another's citizens free passage into and out of their territories.

The catalyst for the latest extension was the 2004 admission of 10 countries -- mostly from Eastern Europe -- to the European Union. Preparations have been underway ever since to dismantle the checkpoints but also to standardize policing and immigration rules for the new members.

Not all European countries have signed up for borderless travel. Britain and Ireland decided not to join, and most of the Balkan countries have been kept out. Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus will be phased in over the next four years.

The ease of travel between Eastern and Western Europe had already eased significantly in recent years. Czechs, Poles and Germans in this area, known as the Little Triangle, had to flash only a driver's license when crossing the border. Pedestrians walking over the many international footbridges and hiking paths here could do so without breaking stride.

Merchants advertising cut-rate fuel, cigarettes and liquor have become a border staple. It's hard to find a gas station these days in Zittau, Germany; residents can save the equivalent of about 80 cents a gallon by driving a half-mile to Porajow, Poland, to take advantage of lower fuel taxes there.

Andre Matthausch, 35, owner of a popular Zittau bar and restaurant, already crosses into Poland and the Czech Republic to shop five times a week. He's signed up to take Czech language classes in January, in part because he has friends there but also because he's seen an increase in Czech customers at his bar.

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