If May 1 2004 was the European Union's 'Big Bang' with ten new countries joining the bloc, then December 21 2007 is likely to be another milestone and a telling test for progress in an enlarged Club Europe. It appears certain that nine of the ten member states (all bar Cyprus) that joined in 2004 are set to join another exclusive club - the Schengen area.
For several years under Schengen, visa free travel and minimal border controls have been the norm within continental Europe and non-EU members Norway and Iceland. The exception being the UK and Ireland which opted out of certain conditions of the Schengen Agreement.
If Brussels gives the nod to all nine, mostly former Soviet states, the frontiers of a borderless Europe will be pushed further eastward to extend from Russia in the north to the Adriatic in the south.
Symbolically, Schengen will also remove one of the last remaining divisions of Western and Eastern Europe.
Borderlands with a high tech 'Iron Curtain'
It's interesting to note that the Schengen Agreement was initially signed in 1985. The concept of abolishing border controls within Europe pre-dates the end of the Cold War. Now, it would seem that Europe is constructing another Iron Curtain, or rather a high-tech one, and an enormous part of Europe's new frontline for border and customs control will lie opposite Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Brussels has so far poured one billion euros into new EU member states to strengthen their borders and another 1.8 billion euros have been allocated for 2007-2013. But weaker border partners will continue to present problems ranging from corruption, human trafficking and petty smuggling to increased transport costs for trucks experiencing long delays to cross borders.
The map above from a recent Economist article shows the new Schengen area and how the Carpathian Mountains arc across Eastern Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.
The 98 km Slovakian-Ukrainian border poses a number of problems - namely patrolling mountainous terrain and dense forests. But there's also the question of border communities. Ethnic Hungarian families on the border, split by the post-WWII cartography of the Soviet regime under Stalin, need straightforward cross border procedures to maintain relations.
The Economist rightly pointed out that the Austrian interior minister has expressed his country's concerns about the new Schengen borders:
"The scare stories have begun on cue. The loudest have come from the Austrian interior minister, Günther Platter. He wants to make up for the dismantling of border controls with his eastern neighbours by setting up military checkpoints within Austria. Czech and Hungarian politicians are miffed by this lack of trust, though Mr Platter's real concern is Slovakia. Its short border with Ukraine cuts through thick forest and the Carpathian mountains, and is seen as one of the weak points in the new Schengen."
"The Economist has very, very strange and out-dated information. Probably they are sleeping. Minister of Interior of Austria (Günther Platter) was here on October 8, 2007 and he visited [the rebuilt border crossing] Vysne Nemecke and [Slovak Border Police HQ] Sobrance and he said that: "Slovakia is fully prepared and is meeting all requirements to join the Schengen zone." He also signed Memorandum of understanding between Slovakia and Austria that deals with future cooperation between border police of both countries. Austrian border police officers will monitor Slovak-Ukraine border on regular basis - as you can remember we saw one Austrian officer when we were coming back from Uzghorod to Slovakia."
Vladimir Benc accompanied myself and photo-journalist Chris Ord during our research trip on the Slovak-Ukrainian border. Benc said he was very surprised by the level of access and permission granted to us by the Slovak Interior Ministry to film the new road, rail and pedestrian border crossings and customs facilities. Throughout all of his border monitoring missions, he had never seen as much as he did with us over three days.
When visiting Slovakia's border facilities in early October, Franco Frattini congratulated the Slovaks on their progress. Having ourselves seen the dozens of new 4WD's and quad bikes, thermal imaging and surveillance cameras in forests, x-ray machines and sensors to detect radioactive material, it would seem in theory, Slovakia has the manpower and the technology to meet its Schengen obligations.
However, we also saw how weak legislation in Slovakia does not prevent well organised local smuggling of fuel and cigarettes across the border.
Then, there is the question of Ukraine's border and customs service.
Under the condition of anonymity, a senior Ukrainian official told us that along with a weak judicial system, the poor salaries of border police does not help the fight against systemic corruption within the ranks.
The queues to cross the border from either side are long and it can take the better part of a day for a truck to cross - sometimes days with slow movement on the Ukrainian side. In order to keep moving, or jump the queue, drivers spoke openly of having to pay bribes to Ukrainian border police.
This clip gives a sense of some of the problems we saw on the Slovak-Ukrainian border. It was filmed around the new Vysne Nemecke border checkpoint on the Slovak side.