The EU’s Eastern Border: The New Iron Curtain

Article published on June 25, 2004
community published
Article published on June 25, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Poland is the new outpost of Europe’s East since enlargement. New immigration regulations are in place to protect the welfare stronghold. For the border regions, however, this translates as a new iron curtain that blocks small border traders from earning their livelihood.

“The Berlin Wall lives on,” complains Wojciech Sadurski, a columnist for the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita. “It has just been pushed a bit further east, as far as the Bug.” The enlargement transfers the main burden of manning the watch post of Europe’s welfare fortress to Poland which has a 1143m long external border, the longest of the new member states. Warsaw has applied to Brussels for around 1.1 billion euros by 2006 for border control and developing infrastructure, and 200 million euros have been approved so far.

In Przemyl, the border town with Poland’s biggest river port, few people share the government’s EU euphoria. They have relatives on the other side of the border, as Western Ukraine belonged to Poland before the war. After World War II, the region, which had formed a social, economic, cultural and religious whole for centuries, was arbitrarily divided up. Families had been able to visit each other without formalities again since the fall of the Soviet Union. “The whole region had profited from the open border,” says Tadeusz Sawicki, mayor of Przemyl. Cheap markets had sprung up all over, where Ukrainians sold cigarettes and vodka in exchange for Polish consumer goods. Poland took on cheap Ukrainian workers to muck in with construction and agriculture. Everything has become so much more complicated since enlargement and the increased border surveillance. It is above all the “ants”, as the small cross-border traders are called in Poland, who have suffered the greatest losses.

Kaliningrad’s cross-border traders are facing the abyss

The same has happened to many traders in the Russian border town of Bagrationovsk, the former Prussian Eylau. Most people earn their living from trading over the border and have often given up their respectable professions because the salary was not enough to feed the family. They took cigarettes, petrol and vodka over the border, all of which is considerably more expensive in Poland. They would come back with cheap textiles, Turkish leather or shoes which the women would sell in the market in Kaliningrad. Almost the entire population there lives on benefit. A daily income of 3 or 4 US dollars is considered a great success. Since Poland’s accession to the EU, people entering the country on an official visa may only bring petrol, a litre of alcohol and a box of cigarettes with them. There were approximately 15,000 border commuters in the former East Prussian Königsberg before the enlargement; every tenth family subsided on border trade and is now faced with an uncertain future, as jobs in the Russian enclave are few and far between.

Paying any price to get over the border

The ugly face of the iron curtain between the welfare states of Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union is felt nowhere as strongly as at the border crossing between Terespol and Brest, which is the CIS states’ gateway to the West. More than half of all traffic on the rails and roads heading into Europe from the East are subject to customs checks. The officials are not prepared for the new regulations that enlargement has brought with it. Hardly anyone has the foggiest idea of the ins and outs of EU law. The customs personnel are also technically unable to check the huge quantities of goods that pass through here.

Even before the enlargement, some days saw queues of lorries by the thousand building up at the crossing and even passenger cars have had to put up with a 24 hour waiting time. The only way to speed up the crossing is to make an arrangement with the local mafia. A driver is usually waved through at the barrier for 100 Euros.

The border control is burdened, however, with more serious problems. Despite being extremely badly equipped, the Polish officials were last year able to apprehend on average 500 refugees in the area south of Przemyl, including Vietnamese, Tamils and Afghans. “The border can never be entirely water tight,” admits Janusz Rogacz, head of the Polish border control. “Human trafficking is simply too lucrative.” The smugglers get from $2000 to $15000 per fugitive. They are supported by Polish builders who cover for the foreigners for a small fee. The business couldn’t run without corruption: the Ukrainian border officials happily turn a blind eye to supplement their salary of $40 a month.

The journalist, Wojciech Sadurski, seems to be right when he says that the Berlin Wall has still not been brought down. Since enlargement, at the new Eastern EU border, the law is in the hands of those with the most hard currency in their pockets. The new iron curtain lives on claiming the little people as its victims.