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Nordic lands join passport-free bloc

OSLO, Norway — The Nordic nations joined a European passport-free bloc on Sunday despite opponents' fears that the new 15-nation group is a step toward a European superstate.

Under the deal, travelers will not have to show passports at borders within an area comprising the five Nordic nations and 10 continental European states.

From Sunday, for instance, anyone can drive from Arctic Norway across Europe to Spain's Costa Brava without showing a passport at frontiers. Travelers flying between Helsinki and Paris do not have to show a passport at either airport.

Opponents of the Schengen deal say European nations are allowing easier internal travel at the expense of tougher hurdles for everyone from asylum seekers to visa applicants to enter the bloc.

"Schengen equals racism" said one protester's banner outside the Stockholm EU summit, which ended Saturday with pledges to speed up reforms to make the bloc the world's most competitive economy.

Norway's "No to the EU" movement brands Schengen, named after a Luxembourg village near the borders of France and Germany, as a step towards a "Fortress Europe" superstate which will strip individual nations of their power to take decisions.

Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, which already allow passport-free travel within the Nordic bloc, are joining the existing Schengen area of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

The Nordic countries have had to spend tens of millions of dollars on work to overhaul airports, ports and border crossings to put Sunday's accord into practice.

Travelers between Nordic and non-Schengen states, like the United States or Britain, will still have their passports checked. Norway and Finland will have responsibility for policing the Russian border for the whole Schengen area. "Europe is making it harder for asylum seekers," said Hans Lindqvist, head of Sweden's failed "No to the EU" campaign in 1994.

Sweden's relatively liberal laws have made it the most popular Nordic country for asylum seekers. Under Schengen rules, asylum seekers have to apply in the first Schengen nation they reach. For Africans travelling by land and sea, that often means south Europe.

"If you can't get to the Swedish border you can't ask for asylum. Schengen takes the decision away from the Swedish border to a place where refugees have no chance," said Lindqvist. Almost no asylum seekers traveling to Europe enter the Nordic nations via Russia.

Iceland and Norway, where citizens voted "No" to EU membership in a 1994 referendum, are the only two non-EU states within Schengen. They will not have a full say, however, in making changes to the agreement.

Nordic governments are telling citizens to carry a passport when visiting non-Nordic Schengen states because hotels or camping sites can demand identification. Nordic nations do not issue identity cards apart from passports.

Paradoxically, the European states are abolishing frontier controls for people at a time when fears of foot-and-mouth disease have led to draconian frontier checks of goods. Schengen only applies to humans.