ZITTAU, Germany, Dec. 21 (Xinhua) -- The passport-free Schengen Area saw its biggest-ever enlargement on Friday as nine new European Union (EU) members began to implement the Schengen Agreement.
The nine countries are Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, all of which joined the EU on May 1, 2004 in the "big bang" of the EU enlargement.
Their entry marked the biggest ever enlargement of the Schengen zone, expanding the zone from 15 countries to 24.
Starting from midnight Friday (2300 GMT Thursday) the nine countries officially opened their land and sea borders to the Schengen Area, and travelers were not required to show their passports when going through the border crossings.
At around 9:00 a.m. local time (0800 GMT), a symbolic border-opening ceremony was held at a crossing near the German town of Zittau, which borders Poland and the Czech Republic.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek participated in the ceremony at the border crossing "Zittau Peace Road-Porajow."
Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, whose country is currently holding the rotating EU presidency, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering were also witnesses to the opening of the border.
After 9:00 a.m. local time, one German and one Polish police officer jointly lifted the border barrier that divided the two countries, symbolizing the opening of the border.
"We are witnessing a historic moment," said Merkel at the ceremony.
She said the enlargement of the Schengen zone to 24 countries has facilitated the free movement of European citizens.
"The children present today have seen in their own eyes the realization of the dreams of their parents and grandparents," she added.
Socrates, who represents the EU, said the Schengen expansion is a "significant" step for the EU, which exactly embodies the idea of European integration.
After the ceremony, the leaders took a bus to a Polish-Czech border crossing just a few hundred meters away.
In a symbolic move, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek cut the border bar dividing their countries with a saw.
"This is a great day not only for Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, it is also a great day for the whole Europe," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the ceremony.
"We can't forget the Iron Curtain that split Europe, but today Europe is united right here on the frontier of the Iron Curtain," he added.
Later in the day as well as on Saturday, a series of border-opening ceremonies will be held in the Port of Tallinn, the border zone between Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, and the border zone between Italy and Slovenia.
The Schengen Agreement, signed on June 14, 1985, allows for the systematic abolition of border controls between the participating countries.
However, it was not until March 26, 1995 that the agreement was put into practice.
So far, all EU members except Britain and Ireland and three non-EU members (Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) have signed the agreement. Of them, only 24 countries have so far implemented the pact.