Friday, 21 December 2007

Today Eastern Europe wakes to no borders

It’s official. As of this morning you can now drive from the Russian border in Estonia to the Atlantic beaches of Portugal, across 24 countries, without passing through a single border crossing. As of midnight, the 2004 EU entrants are now part of the Schengen Zone, the border-free area that allows you to pass through European countries as easily as if you were going from Indiana to Illinois.

Considering the post-cold war implications of this day (all but one of the 2004 entrants are former Warsaw Pact countries), the scenes last night were dripping with symbolism. As Canada’s Global Mail reports, at the border of Germany and Poland the guards spent yesterday removing kilometres of tall steel fence, leaving unmarked and unguarded fields between them. Fireworks lit up the border bridge between Poland and Germany in Frankfurt on Oder early this morning. On the road between Vienna and Bratislava, Austrian and Slovakian leaders met to saw through border-crossing barriers. And in Estonia, the government put its border-inspection stations up for auction. Perhaps nowhere was the scene more striking than on the Czech-Slovak border, as the countries were split apart just in 1993 and now find themselves without a border between them once again.

But it’s been interesting to observe the very different coverage of this event inside and outside the block. Indeed, Canada’s Global Mail reflects much of the apprehension being felt about the changes by those outside the block, especially in North America and the former USSR. One quote was particularly stark, that of Ukrainian citizen Samuel Horkay, when he said, “It's going to be a new Iron Curtain for all intents and purposes.” He feels that way because suddenly it’s going to become much harder for him to visit his mother in Hungary. For while the internal borders within the EU disappear, the external borders are going to be beefed up and magnified ten times.

Yesterday in Ukraine and Belarus, citizens made panicked last-minute shopping trips into Slovakia and Poland, loading their cars with meat, clothing, liquor, and cigarettes. The Poland-Belarus border, which has been very lax for decades, will suddenly become extremely severe. Last night the line to cross was reportedly several hours long.

For outsiders, it’s going to be harder to enter Europe. And for outsiders already here, it may mean some of them have to leave. Having lived in Prague for awhile I made many North American expat friends who were working there illegally. They came when the iron curtain fell to enjoy this beautiful city at dirt-cheap prices (even when I lived there in 2002 beer was still just 50 cents. Five years earlier it was ten cents). A vibrant ex-pat community has developed in teh city, with many of the ex-pats working under the table as English teachers, bartenders, or translators. Although they were working illegally they lived there lawfully by crossing the border at least once every three months and renewing their tourist visa.

But as this article from a German expat paper points out, this community is now under threat. In fact having spoken recently to some of my expat friends still in Prague, apparently they’re all in an absolute panic. Now that the Czech Republic is in Schengen, they’ll have to travel nearly ten hours to the nearest border at Ukraine to renew their “tourist” visas. But even that won’t solve the problem, because under the new regulations tourist visas will only allow people to stay in the zone three months out of any six month period. So either they have to stay in the Czech Republic illegally and never leave Europe (since if they leave they won’t be let back in for three months), or they have to move back to the US.

Of course the party had to end inevitably. After all, the expat community in Prague and Budapest was a temporary phenomenon born out of the fall of the iron curtain, and the countries have evolved beyond the point where Americans can just bum around and live off their savings. Still, it will be sad to see this very vibrant community which I was a part of fall apart. I’ve already heard rumours that “Bohemia Bagel,” the heart of the expat community in Prague, is anticipating having to close by the end of the year.

But it isn’t just those who want to work illegally that will be affected by this. As an American working in Europe I am affected as well. Although the UK and Ireland haven’t signed up to the open-border part of the Schengen agreement, they are still adopting their own rules to conform with the visa policies. Under an overhauled immigration system that will go into effect on February 28, all non-EU unskilled immigration will cease. The UK will no longer be granting visas to unskilled labourers from the Indian subcontinent, the east indies, Africa, or the Americas (a dramatic shift in its immigration policy that has gone virtually unnoticed by the media here). Of course, I’m a skilled worker so my situation is ok. But if you’re an American without a Masters degree and you want to come work in Britain, good luck. After February 28, it aint gonna happen.

Of course there are advantages for non-European as well. For those from countries that need tourist visas to enter Europe’s nations (China and India, for example), there will now be just one visa for the whole zone. So if you’re Chinese and you’re planning a trip to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne, you’ll no longer need to get (and pay for) four different visas. The EU is also developing a new ‘blue card’ scheme that will enable a person to work anywhere in the zone (this will be particularly useful to me if this whole Italian citizenship thing doesn’t work out). But despite these advantages, it is undeniably true that Europe’s external borders are getting stronger, and while this is great news for the future strength and security of the union, it is bad news for those of us that aren’t a part of it.

Are the golden days of the care-free American expat in Europe gone? Perhaps it just won't be as easy as it was before. And certainly, for Europeans, this is probably not something to spend too much time mourning over. But for Americans who want to stay in or come to Europe, the old avenues are no longer going to work.

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