As a child, I used to travel every year from Budapest, Hungary, to France by train. One of the crucial moments of the trip was the arrival to the station of the border town between Hungary and Austria, namely Hegyeshalom (don’t worry about the pronunciation…).
These were the 60’s, ie, the glorious days of the cold war. As the train rolled into the station, soldiers surrounded the train: one guard for each door of each carriage on both sides, all armed with Kalashnikovs; others walking around the station grounds with guard dogs. Officers boarded the train, thoroughly checked the passport of each and every one. Their behaviour was based on the assumption that we were all suspects and guilty, and treated as such, until proven otherwise. Then it was the turn of the customs officers, opening luggages, looking for either forbidden books, journals, newspapers, or simply (when coming back to Hungary) some Western goods that were considered as luxury in Hungary and were therefore to be taxed. For the child of around 10 that I was at the time these were fairly chilling moments… I must admit those images have become encrusted in my mind forever.
Of course, as years went by, things eased a bit: guard dogs disappeared (I guess in the 70’s), there were fewer soldiers (only one on each side of a carriage, not two; what a major improvement that was!), they stopped having Kalashnikovs in favour of just hand guns, the custom controls became sloppier… But the system itself was around in some way or other up until the 80’s.
Why do I write this now? Because Hungary joined the Schengen Agreement a few years ago and, tomorrow, all border control will disappear between Hungary and most of its European Union neighbours (the only exception is Romania, and that exception will also disappear in a few years’ time). One can drive by train or by car from Budapest to Amsterdam or, for that matter, to Nancy (the target city of my childhood trips) without being asked for identity papers, passports, anything; without even seeing a border control post. Actually, I expect that some trains would not even stop at Hegyeshalom any more. Western Europeans take this for granted already (do you think about this when taking a train to Brussels from Amsterdam or Paris?) but it was a long road for a country like Hungary. The world has definitely changed.
There is hope.