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Originally published November 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 8, 2007 at 12:46 PM

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Passport-free travel to begin for citizens of nine more European countries

Citizens from nine new European Union member nations, most in Eastern Europe, will be able to travel passport-free to most other countries...

The Associated Press

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Citizens from nine new European Union member nations, most in Eastern Europe, will be able to travel passport-free to most other countries in the bloc as of Dec. 21. Landmark plans to lift the border checks were endorsed today by EU justice and interior ministers. The decision follows through on a long-standing commitment to the island nation of Malta and eight Eastern European nations that joined in 2004. Once their external borders were judged secure, their citizens would be allowed to take up the full EU rights of free movement without the need to stop at national borders.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaueble said the decision also fulfills the dreams of a united Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

"It is of great importance to the new member states that the Iron Curtain is gone and that controls are abolished," Schaueble said before the EU ministers' talks.

EU officials said the opening of the borders with the nine countries — Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Malta — will be marked with ceremonies one minute after midnight on Dec. 21 by top officials at various old frontier crossings.

The so-called Schengen borderless travel zone is one of the most popular EU policies, allowing EU citizens to travel without having to stop at national borders.

Preparations have been under way for years for each of the nine nations that joined the bloc in 2004, to ensure that their customs and border checks with non-European Union countries are in line with EU standards.

The EU ministers agreed that all nine applicants had met all EU conditions to join the zone. Border checks at airports would be dropped in March.

Several older members, including Austria, had insisted on keeping checks along its border with an area that extends from the Czech Republic in the north to Slovenia in the south, fearing the zone's new eastern frontier would not meet EU standards.

Cyprus, the 10th nation to join the EU, in 2004, has opted to keep some border checks and will stay out of the zone, along with the island nations of Britain and Ireland.

To expand the passport-free zone, the EU has had to revamp its border security system, which is run via a common EU computer database that allows participating states to share passport data on non-EU citizens who enter the Schengen zone.

The current Schengen countries are EU members Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden and non-EU members Iceland and Norway.

Switzerland, which remains outside the EU bloc, is also set to join Schengen next year.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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