Sicilians hail the dismantling of borders
Sicilians gave a big welcome to the first passengers crossing by sea from Malta under new Schengen rules yesterday. A cheering crowd and mayors from the nearest municipalities were there to mark the event.
The early 6 a.m. catamaran found a waiting crowd of dignitaries and officials from the Italian military and police at Pozzallo, along with a military tattoo.
The stately reception, which included an address by Italian Foreign Affairs Under Secretary Bob Craxi, who flew from Rome for the event, was actually held for the ministerial delegation which made the crossing to mark the day.
In the words of Ragusa's mayor Nello Dipasquale, however, yesterday was clearly "a cause for celebration" for the Sicilians.
Along with another eight new EU member states, Malta lifted its sea and land borders to join the EU's borderless area, known as Schengen yesterday.
Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg, who led the delegation, that included Communications Minister Censu Galea and Parliamentary Secretary Carm Mifsud Bonnici, said the event was a historic step forward in Malta's full integration into the EU, which, along with accession into the eurozone this January, marks a "new spring" for Malta.
In practice, Malta's new status will mean that anyone travelling from here to another Schengen state will not need to show any documentation.
At this stage, the system is only effective at its seaports. However, at the end of next March, the second phase of the Schengen enlargement will kick in and air borders will also be lifted. This will mean that travelling from and to Malta by air will be easier and hassle free. On the ground, however, it may take a while for hickups to be ironed out.
Just yesterday, on his way back to Malta, Joe Borg, a passenger who crossed overland from the UK, told The Times he was asked for his passport.
"To tell you the truth I just found out from today's (yesterday's) newspapers that we joined the Schengen area, but both me and my mate were asked for our passports," he said. A group of young Gozitans who also crossed back home yesterday, however, received a different treatment.
"We weren't asked for documentation and a guard who first said we had to have our car ticket stamped from the check-in desk, later remembered we don't have to go through that process anymore as from today (yesterday)," one of the Gozitans, Dominic Cutajar, said.
He initially shrugged off the idea that the new system may make a big difference to passengers but later pointed out that the system will cut queues and make it easier for those travelling to Sicily on their private boat.
"In the end, I would still prefer that they remove the taxes," he explained.
The change may also increase the likelihood of immigrants, who have been given some sort of status in Malta, to move up north to Europe using the scheduled services.
In fact, the head of the Frontex border agency, Ilka Laitinen, recently told Reuters in an interview that he was concerned by the loss of control at the EU's internal frontiers.
"We lose a very important indicator to follow and analyse paths of illegal migration and cross-border crime in Europe," he said.
Yet, when asked about this, Mr Craxi did not appear particularly concerned.
Answering the question in his stead, Italian Ambassador to Malta Paolo Andre Trabalza said the EU was creating a political union and should not suspend this drive in respect to any one country because it happens to be receiving illegal immigrants.
"If immigrants reach the shores of one member state we should not discriminate against that state," Mr Trabalza said.