TALLINN - Border controls between the Baltic countries and their EU neighbors will disappear on Dec. 21 as the three nations, along with six other countries, will be admitted to the Schengen visa-free zone.
The move, which Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip earlier called "the event of the year," puts the Baltics inside a common land and sea border zone with 24 European states, however controls at airports will remain in place until March 30 to allow for technical changeovers.
Integration into the Schengen zone is expected to significantly facilitate travel as well as simplify the lives of people who live in border areas.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will pay his first official visit to Estonia to coincide with the Schengen zone expansion. Barroso will take part in a ceremony in Tallinn marking the enlargement, and will be accompanied by a delegation representing EU and Schengen countries, including European Commission Vice-Presidents Franco Frattini and Siim Kallas.
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and other representatives of the Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic governments will also take part in the event, which will start at 3:30 p.m. at the Port of Tallinn's D-Terminal. The passenger ferry terminal represents a major travel corridor between the Baltics and the Nordic countries, one that will become much more convenient once border checks are eliminated.
Another key ceremony is in the twin towns of Valga and Valka, which straddle the Estonian-Latvian border (see article Page 15).
As the clock strikes midnight, a signal flare will be fired from a border crossing post that separates Valga from Valka, and the mayors of the two towns will be the first to cross the border. After their own crossing they will present special certificates to other people who will cross the border on that night.
On December 21, barriers at the border crossing posts will be dismantled, and the Latvian and Estonian presidents, as well as the mayors of the two towns, will be on hand to make speeches.
A logistical problem arose at the Lithuanian-Polish border when border guards realized that Lithuania, which is one time zone ahead of Poland, would cease border controls at midnight, whereas in Poland, where it would still be 11 p.m., checks would have to continue. Officials decided to remedy the situation by continuing border controls for one hour longer on the Lithuanian side.
Higher level Lithuanian officials, meanwhile, are concerned about what effects joining the Schengen zone will have on their eastern neighbors.
Speaking at a meeting in Brussels on Dec. 14, Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said that the EU should not fence itself off from Eastern Europe with high visa prices. Citizens of Belarus, who had been paying five euros for a visa to travel to Lithuania will now have to pay 60 euros for a Schengen visa. Similar, though less dramatic, hikes will apply to Ukrainian, Russian and Moldovan citizens, who have to pay 35 euros for their Schengen visas. Lithuania has been pushing for special visa prices for the EU's eastern neighbors.