It's been a long time in coming. On Dec. 21 one of the most visible, and practical, benefits of EU membership will become a reality as the Baltic states, along with six other countries, join the Schengen zone. The change will eliminate checks at land and sea borders between the countries, as well as those that divide them from their West European neighbors. Apart from making travel significantly easier, inclusion in the zone is also symbolically important 's it's a sign that older EU members are now willing to trust their eastern counterparts. In honor of this historic occasion, The Baltic Times has put together this Schengen Special, which looks at the history of the agreement as well as the effects it's likely to have on the Baltic region.
VILNIUS - The ability to travel all the way from Finland to Poland without border checks 's a concept that just 10 years ago would have been mind-blowing 's is about to become a reality. For Balts who grew up under a totalitarian regime that had strict regulations on travel even within its own borders, the idea that states would allow their neighbors such unrestricted access to their territory is something that will take getting used to.
It is not, however, a new idea. In fact, the Schengen treaty, and similar agreements, have been around for quite some time.
The birth of this particular project can be marked as June 14, 1985 when, in a small, wine-tasting border town of Luxembourg called Schengen, an intergovernmental agreement was signed between delegates from Germany, France and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) to eliminate border controls between them.
The Schengen Agreement wasn't particularly novel at that point either. 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 (a kind of proto-EU), already foresaw some kind of common border space between its members.
By the time that Schengen Agreement went into effect in 1995, Spain, Portugal and Monaco had already signed on, and Greece, Italy and Austria were quick to follow suit. The biggest expansion of the zone came in 2001, when the five Nordic countries, which had already had their own passport union since the early 1950s, joined up.
Another key treaty, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, incorporated the Schengen Agreement 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 bloc expanded in 2004, the new member states also became Schengen signatories.
It would take some time, however, for them to implement the agreement. Naturally there was a lot of work to be done 's and a lot of jitters among the older members to be quelled 's before countries like the Baltics would be allowed to control a Schengen frontier.
For the next three years EU money poured in. Controls were evaluated. Inspections were made. Schengen officials came to the Baltics and looked at everything from sea and air border control, data protection and police cooperation to administrative procedures and visa issuance. They gave conclusions and made recommendations. In Estonia, for instance, inspectors were initially concerned that border guard services were understaffed.
One of the bigger sticking points in the expansion was caused by the Schengen Information System, a secure database used for sharing information about travelers, as well as criminal activity, among the members. The system is currently being replaced by a new version, SIS II, but problems with software have delayed its rollout and in turn threatened to delay Schengen zone expansion.
In answer to grumbling by the newest Schengen members, Portugal pushed through a plan whereby the new member states would be allowed to use a modified version of SIS 1 until SIS II is ready, sometime in mid-2008.
On Aug. 31 of this year the nine countries that are joining the Schengen zone met their deadline to have technical issues solved, paving the way for land and sea borders to be opened on Dec. 21.
Airport immigration checks in the new Schengen zone countries will be phased out on March 30.
That won't be the end of the story however. Other countries who are already members of Schengen are set to implement the agreement in coming years, namely Switzerland in November 2008, Cyprus in 2009, and Romania and Bulgaria in 2011, giving Baltic travelers even more places to go without border checks.
Good to know
Once the Baltics are in the zone, can I travel to other Schengen countries without documents?
Yes and no. While border checks will disappear, police and customs officials in other countries can still ask to see your documents, and by law hotels require a national ID or passport at check-in. Also, even after immigration controls at airports are phased out March 30, airport security will still need to see these forms of ID.
Does my Baltic country residence permit now let me live anywhere in the Schengen zone?
No. It's still only valid for the country that issued it. You are allowed to visit other Schengen countries and stay 90 days in a six-month period.
Will anything change in the procedure next time I apply for my residence permit?
States still retain the right to decide who gets a residence permit in their country, so nothing should change because of Schengen.
What changes about tourist visas?
Citizens of non-Schengen states who do not require a visa to enter the Schengen area can enter the zone and stay there for up to 90 days within a six-month period, starting from the date of their first entry into the Schengen area.
Citizens of non-Schengen states who require a visa to enter the Schengen area should apply for one from a representative (i.e. embassy) of the primary country to which they will be traveling. Travelers visiting several Schengen states who don't know what their main destination will be should apply at the representative of the first Schengen country they'll be entering.