Opening EC borders proves elusive goal

European hopes for a continent ''without frontiers'' are alive here, if a bit ragged. Studies by the European Community suggest that the dream of moving from country to country without passports has been punctured by officials with an almost vested interest in impeding such travel.

The latest converts to the ideal of open frontiers in Europe are Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany and President Francois Mitterrand of France. In May they decided to lift barriers to movement between their countries.

French and West German car travelers were issued green stickers that give them, in theory, an unimpeded right to pass through the frontier.

But police have begun insisting on a right to check people who pass through border crossroads. They argue that a high proportion of arrests of suspected criminals are traditionally made at or near frontier posts.

Britain, too, stands out as a stumbling block in the path of free passage across Western Europe's frontiers. Foreigners turning up at British ports and airports are often amazed at the elaborate distinctions made by British immigration officials.

Britain has three separate ''gates'' for arriving travelers. British passport-holders go through one channel virtually unimpeded. Citizens of the European Community pass through another gate and may be required to show their passports.

All other foreigners, including members of the British Commonwealth and Americans, and are lumped into the last category. Their travel documents are examined, often minutely, and supplementary checks made for the possession of air tickets for the outward journey and sufficient spending money.

Even after a traveler gets through these barriers, the British customs department has its own ideas about freedom of movement.

If a traveler passes through the ''nothing to declare'' customs channel, he must still be ready for random inspection by customs officials on the lookout for drugs and other contraband.

British officials defend these checks by noting that most other European countries have kept customs operations, especially at airports.

The EC Economic and Social Committee has noted that while some barriers to free movement are coming down, others are going up. France, which is suffering from a shortage of foreign exchange, sets limits on the amount of currency its citizens may take out of the country.

Many Europeans find the most irksome restrictions against free movement within Europe are in commercial areas - and this goes beyond the actions of French farmers hurling English lamb into the sea and English farmers' resistance to the arrival of French apples and pears on their side of the channel.

Truck drivers passing from one country to another constantly complain about lengthy customs checks at many frontiers. They claim that Italian border areas are the worst.

It is common for huge truckloads of fruit and vegetables to be held up for hours while customs officials wade through mountains of paper.

Some officials in Brussels suggest that the amount of money spent on immigration and customs at European frontiers rivals the budget of the European Community itself.

It seems life in the late 20th century is too complex for the European dream of ''open frontiers'' to be fulfilled in practice.

An EC group, recommending ways of facilitating freer movement for tourists, has suggested that to be on the safe side a traveler should carry a passport, an identity card, a driver's license, social security entitlement documents, and a certificate of vaccination.

The irony is that this is more documentation than travelers needed in the 19 th century.

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