Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quietly, the Polish-German border dissolves

As of midnight Thursday the once contentious border between Poland and Germany will be thrown open. For the most part, it has been more whimper than bang for the fall of one of the most historically fraught and violently fought over frontiers on earth.

Traveling along the 450-odd kilometers, or about 280 miles, of the border - from the German town of Zittau in the south, where the German and Polish dividing line ends at the border of the Czech Republic, to the Polish port city of Szczecin in the north - what is most striking is the relative indifference along the way to the change.

For centuries Poland was Europe's marching ground - when it was not dismembered and wiped off the map entirely by some combination of Germany, Austria and Russia. The Kingdom of Poland battled the Teutonic Knights as far back as the Middle Ages and memories of Hitler's Blitzkrieg storming into the country in September 1939 are still alive in the minds of the elderly and the imaginations of the young.

Once Hitler's army was defeated, millions of Germans were forced out of major cities now in Polish territory, like Breslau, now known as Wroclaw. Cities along the rivers Neisse and Oder that form most of the border became divided towns like Frankfurt-Slubice or G?rlitz-Zgorzelec.

That the peaceful dismantling of border posts is largely a ceremonial nonevent testifies to the quiet success of the often-criticized project of European integration. But historical grudges linger under the surface as distance and distrust are still discernible. Communities on the two sides of the rivers that form almost the entire border remain culturally and linguistically apart.

"After the war, the cities turned away from each other," said Ryszard Bodziacki, the mayor of Slubice, which was once part of Frankfurt an der Oder, the Eastern German city not to be confused with the better-known Frankfurt am Main in the West. Bodziacki is working with his counterparts across the Oder to reintegrate the two cities, through joint work by police forces and fire brigades or by sending groups of Polish children across the river to Germany for school.

That cooperation will be easier in practice starting Friday. The border controls are ending because Poland is officially joining the borderless zone within the European Union known as the Schengen area. It is named after the town in Luxembourg where the first agreements to open their boundaries were signed by a group of West European countries including Germany and France in 1985.

Now Poland and eight other countries, most from the former Soviet sphere of Central and Eastern Europe, have adopted the common visa, asylum and external border procedures required for membership. The police will still perform patrols and spot checks inside their borders. But once the new members have joined, it will be possible to drive clear from Lisbon to Tallinn without taking out a passport or identity card.

The movement east of the common border to include Ukraine and Belarus has caused jitters in Germany. The German police have attracted some attention by staging protests to warn against what they say will spell increased crime in Germany once controls at border posts cease.

Crime gravitates toward open borders, their union representatives say, and the earnings gap between wealthier Germany and its poorer neighbors like Poland and the Czech Republic create a temptation for criminals. Josef Scheuring, chairman of the federal police union that organized the protests, said the change had happened on a political timetable.

Politicians made decisions before the technical side, including the delayed upgrade to the Schengen information-sharing network and the harmonization of radio frequencies between the German and Polish police, could be worked out. "Greater Europe will only be accepted by the people if it is safe," said Scheuring.

Poles could be forgiven for bristling at the grumblings in Germany. With seeming unanimity they say they view their country's entry into the borderless zone as a mark of great pride and proof that they have achieved an equal footing with their partners to the west.

"This border is well protected," said Andrzej Adamczyk, deputy director of the Polish border guard's border-management office. He pointed out that European Union officials had approved their work, which included major investments in night-vision technology, mounted cameras and new border vehicles.

To the extent that the fall of the border has been followed in the German media, it has been largely scare stories of people in the border regions installing metal shutters, putting up barbed wire and even buying guns. But talking to locals along the way, the fortifiers seem to be a vocal minority rather than part of a popular groundswell.

"It's reasonable to let people live and travel freely," said Christian Pfeiffer, 30, a psychologist, who was out with friends at a Christmas market in the German border town of G?rlitz. One of them, an avid kayaker, added that the benefit to him would be coming to shore on either side of the Neisse, which forms the boundary between the countries there, without breaking the law.

The border is by now just a minor nuisance, crossed easily by Germans and Poles for cheaper gasoline or cigarettes, or to go to work. Citizens of countries in the European Union already pass through the soon-to-be-closed checkpoints with little more than a flash of the identity card in most cases, and no passport is necessary. Lines can back up at times, especially for trucks on major transit routes such as the highway a few kilometers south of the twin cities of Frankfurt an der Oder and Slubice.

"I think it's a good thing. There won't be any queues," said Monika Kraska, 22, a hairdresser in Slubice. Germans clients visit the tiny hair salon where she works for inexpensive haircuts - just 12 zlotys, or about $4.75, for a simple men's haircut. Kraska said she crossed over to shop in the fancier clothing stores on the German side in Frankfurt an der Oder several times a week, but never hung out or went to clubs there.

Notably absent from the discussion is the long-expressed fear that Poles will come and take German jobs. When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Germany left significant legal hurdles in place to prevent their neighbors from coming to work.

Instead ambitious, highly mobile Polish workers moved in droves to more welcoming parts of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland in particular, where they have been credited with fueling economic growth, passing Germany by - and especially its poorer, depopulating East - on the way.