THE final remnants of the Iron Curtain were torn down across Europe last night as eight countries joined the border-free "Schengen Zone" – removing the last traces of Europe's post-war divide and ushering in a new era of passport-free travel for millions of citizens.
Some 61 years after Winston Churchill first spoke of an "iron curtain" descending across Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic, there were celebrations along the borders of countries such as Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic as wire fences were torn down.
But although the expansion of free travel has been hailed as a boost to trade and tourism, it raises fears over the impact on immigration, with people able to move without restriction as far as the French port of Calais. It also highlights Britain's position as a non-member of the zone and the introduction of more formal passport checks between the UK and Ireland in 2009.
Alfred Gusenbauer, the Austrian chancellor, and Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister, yesterday sawed through an old red-and-white barrier in a symbolic gesture. The enlargement, which also includes Malta, means the Schengen agreement now covers 24 European Union states and 400 million citizens, although people flying between old and new EU countries will continue to face passport controls until March.
For many in central Europe, the freedom to travel is yet another milestone in their journey from the dark days of communism, when foreign travel was a highly-restricted privilege.
"It is a dream come true for generations of Poles who fought to become a part of Europe without boundaries," said Gregorz Schetyna, Poland's interior minister. "It is only now that the process initiated in 1989, marking the fall of communism, has really been ended. The present border opening is a symbolic termination of a period of subjugation in this part of Europe."
Lech Walesa, who led the famed Solidarity trade union in its struggle with communist rule in Poland, said: "An improbable thing has happened: in many areas, Europe is becoming one state; this is the way the world should look."
But the expansion of the zone, which means it is possible to travel from Estonia to Spain without facing border controls, has raised concerns over the possible spread of crime and illegal migration. With many areas of the former Soviet Union wracked by poverty and political instability, fears have grown that the EU could see a rise in black-market job-seekers and crimes such as human-trafficking and smuggling as people to seek to profit from the open borders.
Last month, hundreds of German police demonstrated against the removal of border checks, claiming it would expose the country to waves of illegal immigrants and criminals, while in Austria a television poll found that 75 per cent of Austrians opposed the scrapping of border controls. To placate fears, along with money spent by the EU's eastern member states, the EC has invested 720 million in strengthening the frontier.
In Poland alone, which shares a 736-mile border with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the government has deployed 10,000 border guards to police the often wild and sparsely-populated border regions.
Dr Marek Kupiszewski, director of the Central European Centre for Migration Research, said: "If you look at the re-enforcement on the eastern border, it's formidable. Sneaking across will be very difficult." But he said some asylum seekers already living in Poland would head west to find better paid, if illegal, work.
The attractions of the West, however, might be waning as salaries and prospects in Poland increase. Father Edward Osiecki, who runs a drop-in centre for migrants in a grim Warsaw suburb, said: "The West shouldn't worry too much. Ten years ago, most migrants treated Poland as a transit country, but now more and more of them want to stay. Some have even gone to the West and come back; what they saw there sobered them up."
The border town that shaped EU free travel
FREE travel within Europe began on 14 June, 1985 when, in a small, wine-tasting border town of Luxembourg called Schengen, an agreement was signed between delegates from Germany, France and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) to eliminate border controls between them.
But the Schengen agreement was not unique. The Benelux countries had already had such a system in place since 1948, and the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC) already foresaw some kind of common border space between its members.
By the time the Schengen agreement came into effect in 1995, others countries had joined in including Spain, Portugal and Monaco, while Greece, Italy and Austria soon followed.
The biggest expansion of the zone occurred in 2001 with the arrival of the five Nordic countries which had already had their own passport union since the early 1950s.
The Schengen agreement was eventually incorporated into the Maastricht Treaty, the founding document of the EU. That meant that Schengen was now an integral part of the EU contract, and when the EU expanded in 2004, the new member states also became Schengen signatories.
Future expansion is already on the way, with Switzerland joining in November 2008, Cyprus in 2009, and Romania and Bulgaria in 2011.
One of the main purposes of Schengen is to combat crime and support police co-operation between member states. An important feature of police cooperation is the management of a central data bank – the Schengen Information System (SIS) – which stores information on, for instance, those wanted for arrest on suspicion of a crime, foreigners who will be refused entry to the Schengen area, individuals to be arraigned for trial and information on stolen goods such as cars, firearms, identity documents and so on.
Police in all the Schengen countries have access to the SIS. As non-members, the UK and Ireland are not able to access the system.