The Schengen Convention allows people to move across national borders without the need for visas or passport checks. This was designed to be a simple liberalising measure to promote trade and integration between different nationalities. Because of increases in immigration into the EU during the 1990s and the rise of anti-immigration politics, the concept of open internal borders has become controversial. It has been argued that the lack of internal borders makes it easier for illegal migrants who have entered the Schengen area to move undetected. This may make it easier to illegally traffic people and for criminals or terrorists to go into hiding anywhere in the Schengen area.
The Treaty of Rome (1957) committed member states to allow freedom of movement for citizens across internal borders. However, the European Community made only limited progress on this policy in the first 35 years of its history. As a result, governments in France, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands decided to pursue the policy separately, resulting in the 1985 Schengen Agreement.
This became EU Convention in 1990 and has been expanded to include all EU member states (except the UK, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus), plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Having joined the EU in 2004, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic joined the Schengen zone in 2007.
Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and succeeded in meeting the requirements for entry into the Schengen area in 2011 but were denied entry by the Council of the EU. They postponed their final decision on this indefinitely, amid concerns regarding the security of Bulgaria’s border and corruption and organised crime in the two countries. Microstates, like Monaco, are partially or indirectly included in the Convention.
How does the Schengen Convention work?
EU citizens can travel between the 26 countries in the Schengen area without having their passports checked. Under the convention, countries in the area share responsibility for policing the external borders. The Schengen Information System ensures customs, police and justice authorities in these countries share information about suspected criminals. To join the Schengen area, countries must meet tough rules regarding air borders, visas, police cooperation, and personal data protection. The rules setting out the Schengen protocol are called the ‘Schengen Acquis’.
Britain and Ireland have not joined the Schengen area as they are reluctant to give up border controls and their work permit system, so they still have checks for people travelling from all countries. However, they do co-operate with the convention’s policing policies, and all EU member states issue passports in a common form with a burgundy cover.
In June 2012, EU ministers decided to establish a new Schengen evaluation mechanism that would give national governments the power to impose border controls without needing the consent of the Commission or the Parliament, if it was in the interest of national security. MEPs saw the move as short-circuiting the democratic process and blocked five bills on justice and home affairs in retaliation. Discussions on these bills have since been resumed but an agreement is yet to be reached.
The refugee crisis has strongly tested the Schengen system with over 1 million migrants, mostly refugees from the Syrian war, reaching the EU in 2015. Germany, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and France have all imposed some temporary border controls because of concerns that migrants are moving through the Schengen are unchecked. The EU’s Dublin regulation, which means that refugees must register make their claim in the country where they first arrive in the EU, has not been fully enforced with countries like Hungary and Greece being overwhelmed. The European Commission has been asked for a proposal on how to implement temporary border controls for two years, which is allowed under the Schengen Agreement in exceptional circumstances.