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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Poland fights EU border battle
Polish troops patrol the border
Poland has started reinforcing border controls

Europe is about to go through a momentous change. At the start of the year, a single currency was introduced.

But the end of the year sees the deadline for agreeing the expansion of the European Union and the admission of 10 new countries - mainly from the old eastern Communist bloc.

It is a vast, complex and historic project.

There is a huge political will behind the reuniting of western and eastern Europe, but there are also a host of difficulties.

At the Bobrowniki border post, there is concrete evidence that Poland is readying itself to join the European Union.

Witness to those preparations are the alarms, the computers, even the buildings - much of it has been paid for with EU money.

This is all in the attempt to shore up what should become of the EU eastern border with the desperately poor country of Belarus.

At the border post, the guard is confident that far more illegal immigrants are now being stopped. But the tighter controls have also exacted a price.

Miroslaw drives a refrigerated lorry.

When I met him, he had been waiting in the queue to cross the border into Belarus for eight hours, and was expecting to wait at least another 10.

These days, he says, he can be stuck at the border for 48 hours.

"The modernisation has made the queues worse," he said.

"When it comes to the computers, the guard seems only to type with one finger."

Up the road at Kuznica, it is even tougher.

That border crossing has been closed for almost a year while it is upgraded. It still has not reopened.

Business cost

The locals point out bitterly that out of the cost of around 60 million euros, the EU is only stumping up around a third.

And for the businessmen such as Antoni Zyrakowski, who runs a roadside convenience store, the impact has been crushing.

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"My shop's turnover is 50% down. I used to employ nine people, but I have had to sack five of them since they closed the border."

His business may be suffering, others less welcome, appears to continue apace.

In the Saturday morning markets in Bialystok, the nearest big city to the border, you can find hawkers from Belarus selling smuggled cigarettes and alcohol quite openly.

One young man was typical.

He told me that the Belarussians were so poor they had no choice but to sell packets of American-brand cigarettes, and their Polish customers are so poor that they have no choice but to buy from them.

When a new visa system is brought in next year, it could cut some of the smuggling. But it will be difficult to stamp it out altogether.

Porous border

The Polish border with Belarus is not just marked by shiny new border posts, but also places like the beautiful, dense and extensive Bialowieska Forest.

The border among the pines and spruces and wild flowers is just marked by a yellow sign warning against trespassers, and a long pole that has been slung across an imaginary path.

As Captain Sylwester Tarniecki of the regional border guard admits, policing this wild border is an imperfect business.

"It is quite easy to cross the border here. There is a small river running along the border which is quite wild and hard to patrol," he says.

"But this year we have had a dry summer and the water level is low, making this a good spot for illegal crossings."

And it is one of the reasons that Poland - assuming it makes into the EU - will have to wait a few years before it will be trusted enough to have fully open borders with the other member countries to the west.

The process of transformation is incomplete, and borders form only part of the 80,000 pages of rules and regulations that Poland and the other candidate countries are having to absorb.

The process is immense, juddering, maybe necessary, certainly painful.

See also:

22 Jul 02 | Europe
29 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
08 Apr 02 | Europe
29 Mar 02 | Europe
30 Nov 01 | Europe
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