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June 19, 2008

Europe's Non-Border Border Patrol

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie: Old school.
Photo: AP

by Guy Martin

The EuroCity 179 rolls through the hills of Saxony from Hamburg to Budapest. Next up, the Czech industrial town of Usti nad Labem, or Aussig an der Elbe, as the Sudeten Germans called it before they were all shoved out of Bohemia after World War II. We stop for a couple of minutes in Usti, then roll on toward Prague. As we come down out of the hills, there's the familiar border clatter down the gangway to the left of the compartments: a group of boots, the serial sliding of the compartment doors, and the slightly steely question in Czech and in German: Identity card or passport?

Thing is, we're well past the border, we're well past where these cops should be doing this, identity cards aren't really required for Europeans anymore, there's no dispensation of visas, and the two pairs of border police--one Czech, the other German--aren't really doing anything except monitoring who's on the train. Well, of course. They're armed with the daily watchlist of bad boys, court proceedings, and missing persons from the Schengen Information System in Strasbourg, France. Let's face it, it's interesting to cops all over who's moving through their jurisdiction.

This is Europe's new (since January 1) non-border border control. Schengen was the Belgian town in which the original countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, hammered out the original borderless agreement in the mid-1980s. There are several interesting facets to its current expansion over Eastern Europe. The first is, not many people are left to control the borders. That is simply shocking to people who lived through the Cold War and are accustomed to battalion-strength military, police, and customs people standing in serried ranks to inspect every aspect of their travel. 

It doesn't mean that there are no border police, however. What it does mean is that there is a vast increase in all forms of surveillance, meaning choppers, dogs, and patrols, along both sides of what are still national borders. It's intelligence-based cop aikido, not fence-based border control.

The border of Europe--that now highly elastic thing that seems to rope in whole swaths of the former Soviet Union week by week, much to the dismay of Mr. Putin--runs from the Baltic (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) down the eastern edge of Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary to the Mediterranean. That is also a huge economic border--roughly, the economies of Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary are booming relative to, say, those of Belarus, the Ukraine, and Russia. Thus the new eastern border is subject to all sorts of assault by criminals small and large. 

How to defend one's "country" within Europe, then? The German/Czech Republic land border just southeast of Berlin and east of Munich is a good case in point. At Zinnwald/Zinovec, on the E55, the border station is still there, the "gates" are still there, and the cars and trucks must slow to 30 km/hr (about 20 mph), when driving through them. That's it. 

But there is a ton of observation. The E55 passes through tunnels on the Czech side and tunnels on the German side. People tend to speed through them, but there is a speed reduction from 130 km/hr to 80 km/hr (a serious and real reduction). There are little nooks and crannies before and after the tunnels from which police bathe cars and trucks in radar. They make constant arrests. 

At the old border stations themselves, there's quite a bustling little trade in toll stickers, and the customs people still haul the trucks from the Ukraine to inspect cargo and manifests. It's a border. It's policed. It's just not policed in the same overt way it used to be.

So, the next time you travel by land through any of the Schengen countries, particularly those on the eastern front, so to speak, do enjoy cruising through where the concertina wire and machine guns once ruled the day. 

But do watch your foot on the accelerator. It gets pricey real quick

Further reading:
* Read Guy's first and second reports on the sorry dollar in Europe.
* Hot List 2008: Find places to eat, sleep, drink, and spa as you border-hop.

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