What is the Schengen Area?

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The Schengen Area is under fire once again in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels.

The free movement area is considered a crowning achievement of the European Union, although in the past few years it has come under frequent criticism.

What is the Schengen Area?

The area is made up of 26 European states that have abolished border checks, allowing the free movement of people within the zone.

It takes its name from the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, where the agreement was signed in 1985 between 5 of the then 10 member states of the European Union.

The Schengen Area allows people to move freely between participating states without having formal border controls. In addition, non-EU visitors are issued a single Schengen Visa for travel in any of those countries.

It is considered a cornerstone of the European Union, which guarantees freedom of movement for European Citizens as one of its four pillars.

In exchange, members on the outer edges of the European Union strengthen their borders with non-EU neighbours.

Who participates in the Schengen Area?

Schengen Area map

Currently, most member states (except for the UK and Ireland) either participate in the border-free zone or will do so in the future. Additionally, so do Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, who are not members of the European Union. The microstates of Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City have open borders but are not officially members of the Schengen Area.

Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus are not currently members but are obliged to join.

Notably, Ireland and the United Kingdom have opted out of the Schengen Area, and maintain their own border controls. The two countries have a Common Travel Area that permits travel between the UK and Ireland without the need for a passport. Ireland had expressed interest in joining, but only if the UK did so as well.

Can borders be reinstated?

Yes. In times of emergency, temporary border controls can be reinstated. This has occurred when terrorist attacks have taken place, and as the migrant crisis has developed across Europe.

Why is the Schengen Area being criticised?

Terrorism and the migrant crisis. Populist groups like UKIP have criticised the Schengen Area for allowing unchecked movement of migrants and dangerous individuals across the zone. Neighbouring countries not in the Schengen Area, like Serbia and Macedonia, have seen millions of people fleeing unrest in the Middle East flow through their countries to try and reach northern Europe. This has put added strain on the external Schengen Area border.

Last year, Germany suggested reinstating border controls, and Hungary began building a fence along the Serbian border.

Will the Schengen Area survive?

Despite being under immense strain – from both migration and security concerns – it’s very likely that the Schengen Area will remain in place, even if somehow modified. The United Kingdom and Ireland do have a legitimate claim that it is easier to control a national border as islands. But the fundamental freedom of movement clause that the European Union guarantees, coupled with the many miles of rural borders within the Schengen Zone, make it expensive and difficult for 26 countries to reseal their borders. But popular opinion will likely continue to call for stricter border controls.

Image credit: Oona Räisänen/Flickr

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