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EU’s border-free zone to expand

The European Union has decided to scrap border controls with nine of its newest members from next month.

People will be able to move freely across Europe from Portugal to Estonia. The Schengen free travel area will include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta. The nine countries joined the EU in 2004. EU ministers will confirm the decision next month, after consulting the European Parliament. At one minute past midnight on 21 December passport checks will be scrapped at land and sea borders across much of Eastern Europe.

It is a Christmas present for millions of people from the former communist bloc, who had long complained they did not enjoy full freedom to travel, despite being part of the EU. They will still have to show their passports at airports in most of continental Europe, but only until March.

Criminals too will be able to travel freely from the Baltics to the English Channel. But after years of training and preparations, all the nine countries have been declared ready, including Slovakia, whose mountainous border with Ukraine had caused particular concern. All of them have now been connected to the Schengen Information System, a huge police database with information on hundreds of thousands of wanted people and stolen cars.

The Schengen area, created in 1985 in the Luxembourg village of the same name, currently includes 13 EU countries, plus Norway and Iceland, but not Britain and Ireland, which retain border controls. Cyprus and Switzerland are also expected to join the free travel area next year. However, Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in January, still have more work to do to meet security criteria and will have to wait for several more years. (BBC)