Czechs planning to travel around Europe next year will have one thing less to worry about - they will be able to leave their passports at home. The long awaited accession to the Schengen Agreement, which guarantees the citizens of all member countries unrestricted travel, will happen in the first moments of New Year's Day 2008.
The Schengen treaty, signed in 1985 in a Luxembourg town that gave it its name, abolishes border controls and removes travel restrictions for citizens of its member countries. For Czechs, as well as other Central and Eastern European nationals, it was an amazing sensation crossing a border between, say, Germany and France after 1989, with no questions asked and no documents requested. After decades under a regime that even killed people who wanted to cross its borders, there was a feeling of freedom, dignity and trust. In 2008, this will become reality on Czech borders, too. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, speaking at a news conference, said that entering the Schengen treaty was just as significant as what Czechs saw happening at their borders after the revolution of 1989.
"From next year on, we will be full-fledged members of the European Union. Traveling within the EU, Czech citizens will need no passports or identification cards; they will have to undergo no checks. The symbolic meaning of this move comes close to the cutting of barbed wire after 1989. At that time, the state stopped preventing its citizens from traveling. In 2008, the Schengen countries will stop inhibiting Czech citizens from moving without restrictions, which is one of the four fundamental liberties of the European Union. Entering the Schengen area is an important step towards full membership in the EU."
The Czech government is now launching an "information campaign" that should explain everything about the country's accession to the Schengen Agreement. In a situation when 78 % of the country's population, according to a poll for the Interior Ministry - sees the accession to the Schengen treaty as positive, the government will not have many easier tasks to deal with. But Interior Minister Ivan Langer says there are a few things that need to be done before January 1, 2008.
"The most urgent things yet to be done are the most visible one because they symbolize the border controls, frontiers and walls. Removing them comes first. We will also have to carry on talking to neighboring countries, we will have to guarantee the security of Czech citizens as well as foreigners and we will also have to make sure the public is informed about what the Czech accession into the Schengen area means."
If all goes well, the old member countries get their information systems together and the eastern Schengen border is secured, you will no longer be asked anything leaving the Czech Republic, or arriving in it. Seen from Prague's perspective, the only major complication will concern those members of the local expatriate community who have to leave the country every three months to get their passports stamped. Instead of making a pleasant day trip to Dresden, Vienna or Bratislava, they should get ready to explore the charms of some more distant countries.
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