7 W. European nations open free-travel zone


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- In one of the biggest steps ever taken toward uniting the modern democracies of the Old World, seven Western European nations ended controls on their common borders yesterday, opening an era of unrestricted travel between them.

Fernand Herman, a member of the European Parliament who has campaigned for more than a decade to lift border controls, called it "an important day, an historic day. It has taken time, but now it is finally done."

Mr. Herman made his comments at Brussels' Zaventem Airport, where several politicians had gathered after testing their new freedom by flying in from other European cities.

"It works," pronounced Karl von Wogau, another member of the European Parliament. "I have just arrived on the first 'domestic' flight in Luxembourg's history."

Non-European passengers arriving here and at other gateway airports in the new free-travel region, however, were subjected to tougher immigration checks.

Under terms of the formal convention that took effect yesterday, anyone may now travel without a passport within the seven countries: Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Spain and Portugal.

Italy and Greece have already signed the accord and are expected to join the free-travel zone once they complete technical requirements needed to link up with a computer data base shared by the participating countries. Austria is expected to sign the convention next month.

The five remaining European Union countries -- Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden -- say they have no immediate plans to join the convention, known as the Schengen Agreement for the village in Luxembourg where it was first negotiated.

While Mr. Herman, Mr. Wogau and their colleagues celebrated with champagne, there was little euphoria among the traveling public and a conspicuous lack of back-slapping among Europe's most prominent political figures.

In part, this reflects the fact that controls on most of the land borders shared by the seven countries had already been reduced or removed altogether since customs checks ended with the advent of the single European market in 1993. The changes yesterday affected mainly airports, where passport controls had remained in force.

But there were other reasons why the creation of the free-travel area was met with mixed emotions.

Many, for example, worry that the absence of border controls will make life easier for international criminals and illegal immigrants to settle in the participating countries.

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