The Schengen feeling

This article says a lot about the mood at the moment in Bratislava

MANY Slovaks remember the times when one-day trips to Hungary’s border town of Salgótarján or Poland’s Nowi Targ were highlights of the year. Those who made brave plans to see travel destinations that were unusual for a good citizen of the communist Czechoslovakia had to start making arrangements early, and probably call many important people who knew other important people at important places. One single trip to the wrong destination might have cost them years of unwanted conversations with the secret police.

People who crossed the borders too frequently were suspicious, too. An obedient citizen was happy at home, the communists thought, and avoided the danger of getting infected by Hungary’s more liberal attitude towards private business or Poland’s Catholic traditions, which seemed to survive despite the best efforts of the only relevant political party.
Many can still recall the pre-1989 atmosphere on buses or trains. People nervously clutched their passports as they approached the Slovak-Hungarian or Slovak-Polish border crossings, ready to get a new stamp every time they visited a town on the other side of the border, even when they could see it from their gardens. Nervous mothers silenced their children, fearing that the border guards would search for the extra package of Hungarian or Polish candy that they hid under the seat because they exceeded the unofficial quota.

Many Slovaks have a piece of barbed wire that they managed to get from the fence that separated Slovakia and Austria. Shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Slovaks and Austrians cut it to pieces, driven by the euphoria of change. Many of them stood there burning candles, and at a loss for words, gazed at the place that still bled from the wounds the barbed wire fence opened. They were remembering people who died for crossing the borders and wanting to freely move.

Eighteen years later, workers are dismantling the Berg border crossing between Austria and Slovakia, a spot that two decades ago represented for many a gate to a better and more dignified life.

There will be no need for Berg anymore. The Council of Ministers of the European Union for Interior and Justice unanimously approved Slovakia’s entry to the Schengen area at its December 6 session. Slovakia – along with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Malta – is set to enter the Schengen zone one minute after midnight on December 21.

Slovak officials have described the entry as the act of removing the last remnants of the Iron Curtain.

Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák said that Slovaks will finally have their 50-year-old dream of European freedom fulfilled, while Prime Minister Robert Fico compared the entry to the Schengen zone to the Velvet Revolution back in November 1989.
Though many walls and curtains have been torn down, some psychological barriers will remain, even after the metal ramps of the border crossings are taken to the scrap yard and border officers are relocated to Slovakia’s border with Ukraine, which becomes the eastern border of the European Union.

Whenever borders get erased and the freedom to move freely is given, people have hopes and concerns. These concerns appear rather petty compared to the historical importance of the moment, but they are still legitimate.

Some Slovak towns hope that Schengen will pour more tourists to the region and they will see their businesses swell. Others fear losing tourists from Russia due to the changes to the procedure they must go through to get a visa in the Schengen zone.

After all, Schengen opens up a significant symbolic gate, even for countries that might be led by people representing a strange transition between post-communism and democracy, some of them stuck halfway in between. No matter what anomalies these leaders bring to the political spectrum, the country becomes part of Europe, with all of its attributes.

However, there is some bitter irony in Slovakia entering the Schengen area at a time when the country’s prime minister manufactured a union with the man who pushed Slovakia to the edge of international isolation 10 years ago. Now when the entry to Schengen is actually happening, Vladimír Mečiar is again part of the government.

Regardless, Slovaks will soon have biometric passports and they will not need to use them when they travel to European Union countries. And if someone decides to travel from Prague to Budapest through Bratislava, they will not have to cross at least two state borders within seven hours or so and show their passport to Czech, Slovak and Hungarian officers.

There will not likely be massive street festivities to celebrate the country’s entry to the Schengen zone, but most of the population is aware of the immense importance of the moment. It’s just that most Slovaks no longer feel the euphoria of walking through different gates towards becoming full-value EU citizens. Now they hope to live the reality of it.

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