Passengers crossing over to Pozzallo this morning will make a historic journey, becoming the first passengers to leave Malta's ports under the new Schengen rules.

They will notice a change on their arrival in Sicily as the Italian border authorities will not perform their usual passport check.

The passengers will include Justice and Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg, Foreign Minister Michael Frendo and Competitiveness Minister Censu Galea, who are travelling to Sicily specifically to mark the event.

Today, Malta, along with eight other new EU member states, lifts its sea and land borders to join the EU's borderless area, known as Schengen.

Originally, today's move was meant to take place on New Year's Day but the EU decided to bring forward the event by a few days in order to benefit those crossing from one country to another for their Christmas holidays.

The occasion is being marked with special events in certain areas of the EU, particularly on the historically-bloody German-Polish border, which is no longer a dangerous dividing line. EU leaders will assemble there in the afternoon to mark the event.

At this stage, Malta's entry into Schengen is only effective at its sea ports. However, a more significant step will be made at the end of next March when the second phase of the Schengen enlargement will kick in and air borders will also be lifted.

At that stage, travelling from and to Malta by air will be easier and hassle free. Malta's entry was accompanied by Estonia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia as controls at internal land and sea borders between these countries and the current 15 member states were lifted.

This latest enlargement extends the free movement area by 4,278 kilometres.

Today's event is the result of a series of changes introduced by the Maltese authorities over the past three years that required the final green light from the EU.

Dr Borg yesterday expressed satisfaction that, after three years of hard work, Malta has now managed to arrive to this historic milestone.

"Joining Schengen makes us more European. Maltese citizens are now on the same playing field as our European counterparts," a satisfied Dr Borg told The Times.

Malta's preparations included the construction of a new wing at the airport and the Valletta sea port to cater for the arrival and departure of Schengen passengers. The police force introduced a new unit, called Sirene, responsible for the administration of the Schengen Information System, an EU-wide IT data system. This section employs 40 police officers working on a 24-hour basis all year round.

Malta's overseas missions, which will now also start issuing visas on behalf of all EU member states, had to be upgraded to meet high EU standards. The Moscow consulate had to be relocated to another building as the EU found that the old premises were not suitable.

The new Schengen countries will now join Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the two associated countries Norway and Iceland. The UK and Ireland do not form part of Schengen.

What changes will Schengen entry bring?

At internal borders:

All persons who enter the Schengen area legally are allowed to cross internal borders with, and between, the new Schengen member states without border checks. Internal borders are land borders between the member states, airports for flight connections between the Schengen states and sea ports for regular ferry connections between the Schengen states.

It should be noted that the abolition of internal border checks does not affect the exercise of police powers even within internal border zones.

In the Schengen area:

Third country nationals (non-EU citizens) submitted to the visa obligation can travel with one Schengen visa within the whole Schengen area and no longer need to apply for a national visa for the new member states.

Third country nationals who are in possession of a valid residence permit issued by a Schengen member state can travel on the basis of that valid residence permit and do not need to apply for a visa.

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