Passport-free travel lets Czechs and Germans get a little closer

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It is almost three months since the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia entered the European Union's border free travel zone, known as Schengen. Border checkpoints between the various countries were ceremonially decommissioned and there was a feeling of optimism and excitement about what Schengen might mean. But have things really changed three months into Schengen membership? Radio Prague's Rosie Johnston has been exploring what it means for Czech's by travelling to the Czech-German border.

I’m on a bus, winding my way up the hill towards Potucky, which is a little village on the Czech-German border. It’s in the north west of the Czech Republic, and is apparently a favourite spot for German tourists. So, we’re going to see if that is at all the case, and whether life has changed for inhabitants on both the Czech and the German side of the border three months after the Czech Republic’s entry into the Schengen zone.

Vlastimil Ondra is the deputy mayor of Potucky. He explains to me just quite how popular his town is with its German neighbours:

“On average 2000 German visitors come to Potucky daily. In the winter and at this time of year, maybe the numbers are slightly lower, but in the summer we can have days where up to 15,000 Germans come to visit the town. One of the main attractions for tourists is the market which is run by the Vietnamese people living in this town. The market has brought Potucky a reputation not only in the Czech Republic but also in Germany.”

This shopkeeper has a rather permanent-looking stall in the centre of Potucky. He talks me through his best-selling products. Traditional Czech spa wafers, spirits like Becherovka and cigarettes, he says, all bring in the most money. Business might not be booming this March morning, but then that’s normal for this time of year. In fact, he says, he’s noticed no change in the make-up of his clientele, nor in visitor numbers, since the Czech Republic entered into the Schengen zone three months ago.

But back to the town hall. When the Czech Republic joined its neighbour Germany in the Schengen zone last December, did this spark big changes for Vlastimil Ondra and his colleagues in the local authorities?

“I wouldn’t say that entry into the Schengen zone has really proved to be a defining moment for us. The border crossing between here and Germany was opened in 1991, and it was that which really sparked the boom in tourism. The only thing to have changed is that we no longer check people’s passports at the border. The Germans who used to come shopping here still do, there has been no real change, I’d say.”

But, says Mr Ondra, there is still some need for those on the German side of the border to adapt, and that will take time:

“I think that the only problems are on the German side of the border. Germans are just used to speaking their mother tongue, even with foreigners. Just try and find a restaurant in Johanngeorgenstadt which has a Czech menu, whereas all of the restaurants here have staff who are fluent in German as well as Czech. I think it will take generations for that to change.”

During my visit to the town hall in Potucky, the mayor of the neighbouring German town Johanngeorgenstadt popped over to talk about how people on the German side of the border had reacted to Czechs entering into the Schengen zone. In mayor Holger Hascheck’s view, Germans were skeptical, but three months on, these fears are abating:

“There was a lot of fear about the difference in prices and the difference in wages. People were worried that Czechs would come in and take lower wage jobs in Johanngeorgenstadt, because they could earn slightly more there than they could here. But that didn’t end up being the case.”

And that was the end of my whistle-stop tour of Potucky. It seems that the Czech Republic’s entry into the Schengen zone has had little effect on the day to day life of Potucky’s inhabitants. But it also seems that with increased cross-border communication, attitudes held by those in Potucky towards their German neighbours, and vice-versa, are changing slowly, and for the better.