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16 November 2015updated 13 Dec 2022 1:05pm

What is the Schengen Area – and what could happen to it now?

Europe's commitment to free movement is being contested.

By New Statesman

What is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area is defined by the Schengen Agreement – an accord between 26 countries in Europe that have abolished passport controls at their “internal borders”. This area has a common visa policy, and in some ways functionally operates as a single country in terms of free movement. Generally, this has also involved strengthening their border controls with non-Schengen countries. It’s harder to get in, but once you’re in, it’s easier to move about.

(It’s called the Schengen Agreement because it was signed in 1985 in Schengen, Luxembourg.)

Who is signed up?

Notably, not the UK. (There’s a map of who’s in and who’s out here.) The United Kingdom and Ireland are “opt-outs”, even though both are EU member states.


With a common travel area between the United Kingdom and Ireland – plus a sometimes controversial internal land border between Northern Ireland the Republic – it was considered better to retain the Common Agreement of free travel. (That means that technically, you don’t need a passport to travel between the United Kingdom and Ireland, although in practice airlines and other carriers often ask for one.)

There’s also the fact that, as an island, movement to the United Kingdom operates differently in practical terms than it does, for instance, across the land border between France and Germany. The checks used in the rest of Europe are not designed for an archipelago.

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What checks are in place elsewhere?

It varies, but normally involves registration with the police and carrying ID. Often carriers – airlines, ferries and so on –still ask for a passport. In theory, though, you should be able to move freely across Schengen borders.

There are currently four EU member states (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania) who are obliged to join the Area, but they must first demonstrate that they’re prepared. This involves being assessed in four areas: their air borders, visas, policing and data protection.

What’s happening now?

A few things. Last week, Sweden and Germany were granted authorisation to temporarily reinstate border controls following a large influx of migrants to the EU. The European Commission explains that this is permitted within the rules of Schengen:

The temporary reintroduction of border controls between member states is an exceptional possibility explicitly foreseen in and regulated by the Schengen Borders Code, in case of a serious threat to public policy or internal security.

Other countries such as Austria, Slovakia and Finland have also set up controls.

Additionally, the UK’s 2014 Immigration Act has introduced exit checks, meaning the government can now monitor who leaves the country and when.

So what did it mean when France closed its borders?

It didn’t, contrary to what it sounds like, ban border crossings. It did however close what were previously borders “open” under the terms of the Schengen Agreement, and introduced full nationality and identity checks.

What about migrants arriving in Greece?

It’s already been proposed that the normal Schengen rules be suspended in regards to Greece. This week, the Greek authorities said at least one of the men responsible for the attacks in Paris looks to have passed through the island of Leros with refugees (the BBC reports that the man apparently “registered in Greece and had his fingerprints taken”), which will likely intensify the debate.

What will happen next?

Obviously, it’s hard to tell – but it’s not likely to be nothing. Earlier this month, Brendan Simms and Timothy Less theorised in these pages that the growing pressure from the migrant crisis may help bring about the end of the “European project”.

The Economist also addressed the threat to Schengen earlier this year, while the Atlantic’s Citylab asked whether the closure of the French borders on Friday could herald further tension after France called for “systematic border controls”.

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