Crossing the border, which nowadays is barely noticeable in most of Europe, was once connected with complicated procedures and a lot of time wasted. Waiting in a queue, passport and luggage checks, answering questions about the purpose of the journey, it was not always a pleasant experience. Moreover, there were times when only a few could cross borders.
"A lot changed just over 10 years ago. During the night of December 20th-21st, 2007, travelling around Europe suddenly became much easier for Poles," says Bartosz Grejner, Conotoxia Analyst.
Four million square kilometers of freedom
Poland officially welcomed Europe's open borders in the village of Porajów in Lower Silesia, located next to Germany and the Czech Republic and in Budzisko near the border with Lithuania. The heads of three states and the EU officers welcomed the change with open arms and so-called ordinary citizens could go for a walk in another country without any obstacles. Poles also celebrated entering the Schengen area at other border crossing points. On the beach in Swinoujscie, the wire fence was symbolically cut and destroyed.
The name of the area, Schengen, comes from a town in Luxembourg. In this town in June 1985, the representatives of five countries (Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany) signed an agreement on the gradual abolition of border crossings and controls. They realized their plan 10 years later. Their idea gradually almost spread over the entire Europe.
"Once joining the Schengen area, Poles started to travel abroad much more, according to OECD data, their number increased by nearly 50% between 2008 and 2016. It also worked in the opposite direction, i.e. more foreign tourists came to Poland, in the same period the number increased by 35%,” says the Conotoxia Analyst.
The event of December 2007 was a breakthrough not only for Poland. Together with it, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia also joined Europe without borders. Currently, there are 29 countries forming the free passage and four more countries have formulated their willingness to join the area.
From Scandinavia to the Iberian Peninsula, more than four million square kilometres can generally be travelled freely. Exceptions usually arise only in exceptional situations. For example, this summer, during the G20 summit, Germany reintroduced controls at its borders for a month. The same happened a few months earlier when several countries restricted free movement due to the migration crisis.
Before the wall went down
However, in the Schengen area, travelling is unobstructed, and young travellers in their teens cannot remember what it looked like before the walls came down.
There were no currency exchange offices in post-war Poland for several decades, the first was supposedly established in 1989. Before that, currency exchange was generally illegal. However, people needed, for example, dollars, marks or pounds as an investment rather than for travelling. In the 1950s and 1970s, the Polish authorities issued passports, which were needed for travelling abroad, the authorities were reluctant, so they issued passports for business trips or for so-called ‘invitations’. After returning home, the passport had to be returned to the passport office, which was located in the local police station. Online it can be found that in the 1960s, around 50k people left Poland to capitalist countries and roughly double the amount to socialist countries.
In the 1970s, trips to the GDR and Czechoslovakia became much easier, but from Western Europe, Poles were still separated by the iron curtain. Not only were passports an obstacle, but also visas and cost. Trips were ridiculously expensive when compared with the Polish wage average.
Only at the end of the 1980s were all Polish citizens allowed to get and keep a multi-annual passport for all countries. The crowds of people in front of the passport offices was evidence of the importance of this to Poles. Queue committees, attendance lists and night duties were created, many people dreamt of a pass for foreign trips, even to West Berlin, where, in 1989 the Wall was demolished which divided the city for 28 years.
Saying no to bans
Today it seems unbelievable that only decades ago, in communist Poland, people who wanted to live and make money in another country, were condemned by propaganda as "cheaters and traitors". Despite this, Poles still wanted the world. Our country was in the middle of Europe with closely guarded borders, which is why so-called ordinary citizens, but also sports stars and artists escaped, often in a rebellious manner. Other forms of emigration were legal migrations, during which the emigrants refused to return to Poland and asked for asylum and legalised their stay abroad.
Economic reasons, but also worldview, politics or simply the desire to oppose bans, have often influenced this. Afterwards, the most spectacular escapes in history were followed by books, films and reports. Authors gathered the exciting stories and created masterpieces. Some examples of these are; about the escape of a well-known football player through a hotel room window during a trip to a cup match with a foreign team; about the hijacking of a ship or an airplane; about hiding among luggage, in a truck chassis; about cruises by fishing boat to Denmark or Sweden.
First the European Union, then the Schengen area
Poland joining the European Union in 2004 and its entry into the Schengen area, which came into force on a December night in 2007, gave Poles more than just the comfort of travelling around the Old Continent. Nowadays, Poles can also choose the country in which they want to live, work, receive medical or pension benefits.
According to statistics, more and more people are using this privilege. "In 2004, there were 770k Poles living in European countries. A year later, for the first time, we broke the barrier of one million (1.2). After a few more years in the EU, but outside Poland, there were already over 2 million Poles, and the GUS data for 2016 already mentioned over 2.2 million Polish people who decided to emigrate to the EU. It is worth noting that the aforementioned 2.2 million is at the same time the vast majority of the entire Polish emigration, which GUS estimated last year at just over 2.5 million," says Bartosz Grejner, Conotoxia Analyst. "However, GUS estimates may be slightly conservative. OECD data shows that in Germany alone there are currently about 1.3 million Poles and in Great Britain less than a million," says the Analyst.