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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Set to Extend Borderless Zone

SOBRANCE, Slovakia -- From the air, thermovision cameras mounted on aluminum poles scrutinize the border between Slovakia and Ukraine. On the ground, guards patrol and customs agents use scanners to sweep train compartments for illegal immigrants.

There's a reason for all this unprecedented security: In just a few months, the 100-kilometer band of steep hills, woods, meadows and creeks will become the easternmost outpost of the European Union's borderless travel zone.

Nine of the 10 countries that became European Union members in 2004 will join the so-called Schengen zone Dec. 31, completing the last step in their quest for one of the basic rights enshrined in EU treaties -- freedom of movement without having to flash a passport.

All nine countries are on course to abolish controls on overland borders with other EU members by the end of the year, although there have been a few bumps. Slovakia and Poland have had problems sticking to the tight deadlines for implementing the stringent new security measures, and Austria in particular has voiced concerns that security won't be watertight. Cyprus, which also joined the EU in 2004, has opted to keep some border checks in place.

But the expansion of Schengen will have major symbolic significance for the newcomers. Despite being full-fledged members of the 27-nation bloc, until now they've been required to keep in place security checks at all their borders. Officials in the nine mostly ex-communist countries liken the importance of joining the borderless zone to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Ironically, what's now being built on the EU's eastern frontier is a new, high-tech version of an iron curtain.

There is no barbed-wire fence, but efforts to catch people trying to sneak into Europe from the east have accelerated. Authorities say they're determined to disprove Western concerns that the EU's newcomers are incapable of protecting the bloc from potential terrorism and illegal immigration.

The Schengen zone takes its name from the village in Luxembourg where a landmark treaty allowing the abolition of border controls was signed in 1985.

Thirteen EU countries plus Iceland and Norway participate in the zone, and Switzerland is set to join along with Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Czech Republic at the end of this year.