Hungarians first cut the Iron Curtain - now Schengen brings the final act

Schengen area in 2008

Almost two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, another important barrier separating members of the former Eastern block from western Europe is to be lifted. As of December 21st, nine countries that joined the European Union in 2004, including the member states of the Visegrád Group, will be part of the Schengen agreement, a zone without internal border control. Hungary was the first country to breach the old iron curtain - allowing citizens of the former East Germany to travel to Austria from where they could easily continue on to the West. So having pioneered the bringing down of borders - how do Hungarians feel about the final sweeping away of those annoying border checks?

Hungarians wishing to do the last wave of Christmas shopping in Vienna this year will find no border control when crossing over to Austria – something unimaginable for many decades on a border that was once part of the deepest division between East and West: the Iron Curtain. In fact, the timing is not accidental: European politicians wish to hand over Schengen membership as a kind of Christmas present, to be completed in March next year when airports also join the system. Hungarian border guards will disappear from the country’s checkpoints with Slovenia, Austria and Slovakia. What that means in practice is explained by Captain Melinda Moór of the Hungarian Border Guards:

"That will be the Schengen internal border. This border may be crossed at any point, not only through the border-crossing points but anywhere without control. Of course, people will have to carry documents with them because, not strictly at the borders, but there may be police checks or other checks where they have to identify themselves, of course. So – in this respect – border control will be abolished but controls, security controls will not be. This abolishment of border control, of course, means some kind of risks for our national security, so they have to be compensated for. As a consequence, the border guards – and from the first of January, the police – are entitled to carry out checks throughout the territory of the country."

What’s more, – through bilateral agreements – police from neighbouring countries can mutually cross into each others’ territory to chase criminals if necessary. While border control will basically be eliminated in the western and northern borders of Hungary, much stricter control will be applied in the east and south from the Ukraine to Croatia.

"The Schengen external borders [controlled by Hungary] will be 1,100 kilometres long that does not include Romania. Romania is already a member of the European Union but not a member of Schengen. So, a strict border control will be continued but this border control is carried out together with the Romanian authorities. Along Serbia and the Ukraine, of course, a strict border control can be expected, and this is the same case with Croatia."

So, travellers through Hungary’s land borders will be affected by the changes in one way or the other but what about those who cross the borders more frequently as part of their job? MASPED is one of the major cargo transport companies in Hungary. Its managing director, Miklós Horváth, says he – as a travelling businessman – will feel the advantages of Hungary being included in the Schengen zone but the truck drivers may still have to stop at the border:

"We would not expect major changes here because – as we understood this change –, a driver will have the same process as a tourist but the cargo could be checked. And to measure the weight you need facility, and the facility is there already at the border, they can use it, of course. I assume that it might be that the Austrians will keep or maintain some control relating to other regulations of the EU: working time regulations and the technical condition of a vehicle."

So, Hungarian citizens will soon be able to feel the freedom of travelling in most parts of Europe without border controls, completing a process that started with their compatriots letting East Germans pass over to Austria and cutting the barbed wire of the old Iron Curtain.