10 years since Estonia joined Schengen Area ({{commentsTotal}})

Opening the border at the Port of Tallinn, Dec. 21, 2007.
Opening the border at the Port of Tallinn, Dec. 21, 2007. Source: (Küllike Rooväli/Eesti Meedia/Scanpix)

At 11:00 a.m. on Dec. 21, 2007, with several hundred people watching and the presidents of the two countries attending, border guards loosened the screws on the last bit of the black-and-white fence along the Estonian-Latvian border in Valga.

Though people had been able to cross the border without having to pass checkpoints starting midnight the night before, taking down the fence marked the ceremonial end of the physical border between the two countries. The Schengen Agreement had entered into effect, with all three Baltic states joining the European area without internal borders.

"Schengen means openness based on trust. And this also means responsibility," President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, just a year into his first term in office, told the attending officials, diplomats, and members of the European Parliament.

The same evening Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (Reform) welcomed his Finnish counterpart, Matti Vanhanen, at the Tallinn port's D-Terminal. Vanhanen had left his passport at home as a symbolic act.

Asked by ERR's online news to comment on the influence Schengen has had on Estonia, then-minister of foreign affairs and current Estonian MEP Urmas Paet (Reform/ALDE) said that joining the Schengen Area was a great achievement both from the point of view of practice as well as its symbolic value.

People were now able to travel across the Schengen countries, and the movement of goods would be beneficial to the country, no doubt. "But on the other hand the symbolic value was priceless," Paet said.

Before they could join, Estonia as well as the other countries that were added to the Schengen Area in 2007 had to undergo in-depth checks of their border authorities and police forces and convince the existing members that neither corruption nor incompetence on the part of their officers would be an issue.

"Things went well for us, and we passed all the tests. The political stance at the time made it possible to get to a result," Paet said.

While after Estonia's accession to the European Union in 2004 the plan initially was to have the country in the Schengen Zone already in 2006, a confidential report quoted by the Financial Times hinted at the new member states' difficulties to meet all the requirements to be accepted.

In Estonia's case, what was a reason for objections was the country's low number of border guard officers. Most of the countries waiting to join had to make some improvements, at the time only Poland was praised for its well-staffed border guard as well as its state-of-the-art equipment.

But in 2007 the latest EU members joined. Since then, the biggest test of the Schengen Area has doubtlessly been the migration crisis. Some of the area's members reinstated border checks, some of them still in place today.

Still, "the aftershocks were emotional rather than substantial," Paet told ERR and explained that politicians at the time needed to demonstrate that the state could do at least something to control the situation. Though Paet said he is skeptical whether this ever did any good.

A member of the European Parliament for Estonia today, Urmas Paet suggests to all critics of the Schengen Agreement that they try and think back to what the situation was ten years ago, and how tedious it was having to queue at the border.

"The free movement that exists within Europe is something we need to hold on to," Paet said.

Currently Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia are waiting to join. They might have to wait a bit longer still, as given the current situation within the EU, it is generally difficult at this time for the members to reach any kind of compromise, Paet pointed out.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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