A hard EU bor­der

Derek Scally vis­its Poland, to see how the EU does ex­ter­nal borders.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Derek Scally

The surest way to raise a smile on a Pol­ish bor­der guard’s face is to men­tion Brexit buzz­words like “fric­tion­less” and “in­vis­i­ble”. Brexit t al ks r e main on a knife-edge, as Bri­tish of­fi­cials strug­gle to square the cir­cle on the Bor­der is­sue.

On the one hand, those an­o­dyne ad­jec­tives de­scrib­ing the Ir­ish Bor­der from March 29th, when the UK is due to leave the EU. On the other, Lon­don’s prom­ise to take back from Brus­sels con­trol of its borders and po­lit­i­cal des­tiny. But 2,000km east of Lon­don, there is lit­tle room for con­struc­tive am­bi­gu­ity.

Sit­ting in his of­fice on Poland’s busiest bor­der with Ukraine, four hours south­east of War­saw, Cdr Robert Brych­lik grins broadly and shakes his head when asked if an outer EU bor­der can ever be fric­tion­less or in­vis­i­ble.

“There is no way this is pos­si­ble,” he says, be­cause there is no tech­nol­ogy in the world that can pre­vent queues.

“Tech­ni­cal de­vices help us op­ti­mise and shorten wait­ing times, but can­not solve them en­tirely,” he says over a con­stant, low hum of hun­dreds of idling en­gines out­side. “There is no get­ting away from the hu­man el­e­ment.”

Leav­ing his of­fice, a sprawl­ing check­point com­plex opens be­fore us: a far-from-in­vis­i­ble sea of as­phalt – un­bear­able in the re­cent sum­mer heat – that cov­ers 12 hectares, or al­most 17 soc­cer pitches. Men in green uni­forms walk around busily be­neath a huge metal tower topped with cam­eras and aeri­als. They haven’t gone away you know.

A Ukrainian woman col­lects her pass­port from the check­point win­dow and walks back to her car, at the top of a long queue, to drive into Poland.

The guards have a two-minute tar­get for check­ing pri­vate traf­fic – ev­ery ve­hi­cle is stopped here – but all those two min­utes add up.

“Just two hours’ wait to­day, some­times it’s three,” says the woman with a tired smile.

A few lines over, truck driver Ma­ciej is pulling out for the fi­nal run home into Poland. His truck is empty to­day but nor­mally he trans­ports hy­giene prod­ucts.

“I got straight through to­day but of­ten you can wait here two or three days,” he says. “It’s a real night­mare.”

The check­point at Doro­husk is a chas­ten­ing throw­back to how things used to be be­fore EU open borders and a sober­ing re­minder of how things are beyond the bloc. Dead time here is mea­sured out in hun­dreds of dis­carded, flat­tened ci­garette butts.

An hour be­fore our visit, an en­thu­si­as­tic bor­der po­lice of­fi­cial in the nearby Pol­ish town of Chelm is anx­ious to ex­plain, as he puts it, “just how much hard work a hard bor­der can be”.

We watch a re­cent video of po­lice in full riot gear raid­ing apart­ments and ar­rest­ing sur­prised men in their un­der­wear. An­other video, clearly sur­veil­lance footage, shows men load­ing black boxes onto dinghies be­fore po­lice swoop. Some 38 peo­ple, all sus­pected mem­bers of a crim­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion, were de­tained for smug­gling 80 mil­lion zloty (¤18.6 mil­lion) worth of cig­a­rettes – a smug­glers’ favourite in this part of the world. An­other im­age is of an in­ter­cepted smug­gler’s drone car­ry­ing 86kg of hashish.

Riot gear, guns & bal­a­clavas

Watch­ing the videos, though, all any­one of a cer­tain age from Ire­land will see is the fa­tigues, the riot gear, guns, bal­a­clavas and other ac­ces­sories of a past most hoped was never com­ing back.

At 530km, the Poland-Ukraine fron­tier is barely longer than the in­ner Ir­ish Bor­der but is far more chal­leng­ing to po­lice. Beyond just five of­fi­cial cross­ings (com­pared with more than 200 in Ire­land), bor­der guards use he­li­copters, quad-bikes, boats, dinghies, ther­mal cam­eras and more to mon­i­tor forests and marshes around the river Bug that sep­a­rates the two ter­ri­to­ries.

Com­pound­ing the chal­lenge are weather ex­tremes. The river freezes in win­ter and the water partly van­ishes in hot sum­mers, al­low­ing any­one to walk across.

About 46,000 peo­ple were in­ter­cepted last year mak­ing so- called “ir­reg­u­lar en­tries”.

On the ap­proach road to the Doro­husk cross­ing, which han­dles about 40 per cent of traf­fic be­tween Poland and Ukraine, more than 200 trucks are wait­ing in the right-hand lane this Thurs­day morn­ing to leave Poland. In all it’s about 3km of idle Ukrainian hauliers head­ing home for the week­end – if they make it. To­mor­row it will be far worse, says se­nior com­man­der Arka­diusz Ty­wo­niuk.

He is re­spon­si­ble for al­most 90 per cent of Poland’s bor­der with Ukraine, here in the river Bug re­gion.

De­spite the stag­ger­ing wait­ing times, the de­mands of glob­alised trade mean traf­fic con­tin­ues to grow here and the check­point fa­cil­ity is fac­ing its third up­grade since 1990.

A bi­lat­eral “small bor­der traf­fic” ar­range­ment al­lows lo­cals in a 60km cor­ri­dor here cross the bor­der eas­ily. But there are re­stric­tions: Ukraini­ans can­not ex­ceed 90 days a year in Poland, must not travel beyond the bor­der area and re­quire a visa to work legally.

Cdr Ty­wo­niuk smiles quizzi­cally when talk turns to seam­less borders. Such talk, he makes clear, comes from peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand why the EU has closed borders like his: so that other EU borders can re­main open.

“We have the prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive and we are re­spon­si­ble for se­cu­rity,” he says.

That means im­ple­ment­ing se­cu­rity in­struc­tions for the Schen­gen free- move­ment area, such as a new rule to check all cars, in­clud­ing those pre­vi­ously waved through with only ran­dom checks.

And even these quick checks re­quire con­sid­er­able in­fra­struc­ture, given that 767,000 ve­hi­cles passed this way last year.

Bor­der guards

The Doro­husk cross­ing em­ploys 300 bor­der guards and 260 cus­toms of­fi­cials who work in shifts, 24/7, ev­ery day of the year. All traf­fic ar­riv­ing is fun­nelled through two nar­row lanes un­til it spreads out in the tran­sit com­pound.

Af­ter en­ter­ing, ve­hi­cles went their way around a labyrinth of bor­der po­lice, cus­toms, vet­eri­nary fa­cil­i­ties, ve­hi­cle bays, toi­let-shower blocks and ware­houses. When a bus ar­rives, all pas­sen­gers dis­em­bark and have their doc­u­ments checked while they pass through air­port-like se­cu­rity.

We watch a guard in one cabin process a truck driver in about five min­utes, af­ter hours of wait­ing.

A wide, cop­per- coloured strip on the road out­side weighs the truck, and the weight is com­pared to the reg­is­tered cargo. A cam­era cross-ref­er­ences the reg­is­tra­tion plate with po­lice data­bases. There are car­bon diox­ide sen­sors to de­tect hide­aways. A com­puter sys­tem as­sesses risk and, if nec­es­sary, or­ders a phys­i­cal cargo check.

In a nearby shed, a guard waves in an­other truck and at­taches large metal sen­sors to its un­der­side, front and back.

Then he launches lap­top soft­ware – that has the slo­gan: “For se­cu­rity that doesn’t miss a beat” – which, Cdr Robert Brych­lik says, de­tects any liv­ing crea­ture in­side. Though peo­ple smug­gling has dropped in the last 18 months, Chechens, Rus­sians, Turks and even Iraqi stow­aways still turn up.

Walk­ing around his do­main, Cdr Brych­lik says he has worked in the bor­der po­lice ser­vice for 24 years. Af­ter serv­ing on the open Pol­ish-Czech bor­der, he was trans­ferred 18 months ago to this closed, hard fron­tier.

“My ser­vice wouldn’t have been com­plete with­out serv­ing here,” he laughs, “on a bor­der that re­flects the true spirit of the job.”

Tran­sit zone

As we leave the tran­sit zone and walk across the river Bug, stop­ping at the of­fi­cial bor­der in the mid­dle, he points ahead to the Ukrainian tran­sit zone. There is only lim­ited co-op­er­a­tion, he says, and low lev­els of trust, be­tween the two sides. Af­ter the bu­reau­cracy on one side, driv­ers have to go through it all again on the other.

“A lot of the wait­ing on the Pol­ish side is for the Ukraini­ans to process peo­ple,” he adds. “Only then can we let peo­ple across.”

Back at Doro­husk, we stop off with Aus­trian of­fi­cer Herbert Enzinger, on sec­ond­ment from EU bor­der agency Fron­tex.

“When you are used to open­ness it takes some get­ting used to this bor­der,” he says, look­ing up from his com­puter. “It re­ally is hard.”

Talk to Pol­ish bor­der po­lice about Brexit and they ad­mit they are not fa­mil­iar with the in­tri­ca­cies of the talks. They as­sume ev­ery­thing will be done to en­sure traf­fic flow across the Ir­ish Bor­der will be as smooth as pos­si­ble.

But the of­fi­cers here know outer EU borders bet­ter than any politi­cian in White­hall. And at the EU outer wall, they in­sist, se­cu­rity takes pri­or­ity over po­lit­i­cal or com­mer­cial con­cerns – re­gard­less of the time that takes.

“We are con­scious that the se­cu­rity of the en­tire Euro­pean Union may de­pend on our good work,” says Cdr Brych­lik, walk­ing us down the cor­ri­dor to Poland’s cus­toms agency, the NRA. It is the sec­ond port of call for all in­com­ing bor­der traf­fic.

Doro­husk’s NRA chief Jacek Iwanczuk lists his team’s more ex­otic finds over the years: gal­lium; shoes made from the skin of pro­tected snakes, and one of the world’s big­gest-ever me­te­ors, which at­tracted bus tours of cu­ri­ous sci­en­tists.

Thor­ough­ness of checks

Like his bor­der po­lice col­leagues, Iwanczuk says thor­ough­ness of checks goes be­fore haste – even if there is per­ish­able cargo in trucks. Though, as an outer EU bor­der, no food and no dairy – raw or pro­cessed – are al­lowed in here.

When Poland joined the EU – and Schen­gen – in 2004, it as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the bloc’s eastern wall. Some 14 years on, Iwanczuk still re­mem­bers be­ing made feel in­fe­rior by western col­leagues who doubted that Poland was up to the job.

Now that Poland has achieved some of the high­est bor­der check stan­dards in the EU, Iwanczuk adopts a hu­mour­less smile when asked about what is start­ing to feel like the bad run­ning joke of the day: the idea of a soft, in­vis­i­ble outer EU bor­der in Ire­land.

Looser bor­der con­trols along the EU’s new­est west wall, he says po­litely, could cre­ate prob­lems stretch­ing across the EU to here in the east.

“Af­ter our hard work here since 2004, it would be hard to ac­cept that we do the work here and they don’t there.”

As Brexit talks go down to the wire, the only point of agree­ment on the Ir­ish Bor­der so far is that no pre-ex­ist­ing model will fit. The Scan­di­na­vian sce­nario be­tween Nor­way and Swe­den is for the op­ti­mists, while this Slavic sce­nario – with lights, checks, tow­ers, de­lays, fences and uni­formed guards – is for the pes­simists.

Doro­husk is where Brexit Bor­der mag­i­cal think­ing comes to die.

Looser bor­der con­trols along the EU’s new­est west wall, he says po­litely, could cre­ate prob­lems stretch­ing across the EU. ‘Af­ter our hard work here since 2004, it would be hard to ac­cept that we do the work here and they don’t there’

Main and top above: guards at the Poland-Ukraine Bor­der Above: The tran­sit com­plex on the Pol­ish side of the Poland-Ukraine bor­der

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