Instituted in 1985 as an intergovernmental project between five EU countries, the Schengen agreement has become one of the primary achievements of the European Union.
The Schengen agreement proposes the abolition of common visa policies within its members, allowing citizens to travel freely between member countries without going through border controls. It was originally comprised of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, but it has gradually expanded to become the largest free travel area in the world, encompassing 26 countries, 4 million square kilometres, and almost 420 million people. 22 of the 27 EU member states are now part of the Schengen zone, with the other 4 non-EU members being Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
This agreement brings significant social and economic benefits to all citizens and businesses in its participating states. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million people cross internal borders within the Schengen zone daily. The abolition of passport controls not only helps save precious time but also mitigates the bureaucratic efforts of each state and promotes healthy business relationships. Additionally, the free-travel zone promotes tourism and benefits cultural sectors within member states. The ease of passage between member states allows for an increase in speed and efficiency at which trade can be operated, and it considerably reduces the costs of import and export between states, making trade within Schengen more profitable.
Additionally, the Schengen area allows for greater cooperation between the police forces, customs authorities and external border control authorities of all the member states. In the context of law enforcement cooperation, the Schengen area allows for improved systems of communication between forces and direct exchanges of information between police authorities. This provides for improved cross-border surveillance of suspects and easier hot pursuit of criminals. This is an enormous advantage in the fight against terrorism and against serious and organised crime, including trafficking in human beings and illegal migration.
The Schengen borders code allows member states to reintroduce controls at certain internal borders as a last-resort option in case of exceptional circumstances. This included the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2015 terrorist attacks, during which border controls were temporarily re-introduced.
Countries wishing to join the Schengen area must undergo a series of evaluations to determine whether they fulfil the conditions necessary to apply the Schengen rules. Once the evaluation confirms the readiness of a member state to join the Schengen zone, all other members of the area have to approve the decision unanimously, after consulting the European Parliament.
This complex selection procedure has recently caused increased tensions following the admittance of Croatia into the Schengen zone. Croatia, the newest European Union member, was admitted into the Schengen area on December 8th 2022 after a unanimous vote by all area members. This sparked outrage from Bulgaria and Romania, both of which submitted to be part of the area in 2011 but have been repeatedly rejected due to objections by Austria and the Netherlands. The Netherlands and Vienna both cited migration fears as the reason to block the two eastern European countries from finally joining the zone. Opening the border to Romania and Bulgaria would ensure an inflow of migrants into neighbouring countries, something that those states might not be able to handle. Immigration is not the only reason that Bulgaria and Romania had been rejected. According to Vessela Cherneva, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Bulgaria’s and Romania’s problems with corruption have severely damaged the country’s ability to follow the European rule of law. The two eastern European countries have now vowed to tackle their immigration and corruption problems in the hope of soon becoming a part of the Schengen zone.
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