E.g., 09/28/2023
E.g., 09/28/2023
Schengen and the Free Movement of People Across Europe

Schengen and the Free Movement of People Across Europe

Since the creation of the European Community (EC) in the late 1950s, European countries had long discussed achieving greater integration through the free movement of goods, services, capital, and workers on the continent. While the Community moved ahead on the free movement of the first three, efforts toward the free movement of workers, and indeed all persons, were more belabored.

The result of those efforts — the series of agreements known as Schengen — has affected border control and visa policies across European Union (EU) Member States. Schengen opened borders between participating countries, but in doing so necessitated changes to bring cooperation on common external border controls.

Historical Background

During the 1980s, EC Member States began to debate whether border checks between countries could be eliminated entirely, or whether free movement should only apply to EC nationals, leaving those visiting from outside the community subject to passport and visa checks at each national border.

Given the slow movement on the issue, a handful of Member States opted to push ahead and, independently of the European Community, create an area without internal border controls.

The Benelux countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) had already established a common passport area in 1970. After protests by truck drivers upset by border-crossing delays between France and Germany, the two countries signed a bilateral agreement in 1984 to eliminate controls along their common boundary.

On June 14, 1985, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands met near the little town of Schengen in Luxembourg to sign the Schengen Agreement. The agreement called for the elimination of all passport and other checks between participating countries and established a single external border. However, the provisions of the agreement were not put in place until a later date. At that time, the Schengen area was viewed as a sort of laboratory, testing the creation of a common passport area before expanding Schengen to the entire EU.

Map of the Schengen Area

While the original intent of eliminating border controls was to facilitate the movement of citizens from participating countries, it was not possible to eliminate border checks for these travelers while still maintaining checks for travelers from outside countries. Therefore, the concept of free movement was expanded to allow free travel of outside visitors within the Schengen area. Eliminating border controls for these outside visitors created the need for careful coordination on who would be admitted through external borders to travel freely within the Schengen area.

In 1990, the five countries (France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) signed the Schengen Convention, intending to put the common area into practice.

The convention included several provisions on visa and border policies. Regarding short-term visas (less than 90 days), the convention outlined the need for a common policy on the movement of persons and arrangements for the granting of visas, as well as provisions for uniform visas to allow travel throughout the Schengen area. Longer-term visas (exceeding 90 days) were to remain under national competence. While there would be no internal border controls, external borders were to be subject to uniform principles, but remain in the scope of national powers and legislation.

Other countries soon signed onto Schengen, beginning with Italy in 1990, Portugal in 1991, Spain in 1992, Austria in 1995, and Finland, Sweden, and Denmark in 1996.

Norway and Iceland had long been part of a Nordic passport union with Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, so although neither Norway nor Iceland is a member of the EU, both joined the Schengen area in 1996 to preserve this union.

Denmark also maintains a unique position in regard to Schengen in that, unlike other Schengen countries, it can choose whether or not to apply any new decisions made under the Schengen agreements.

Schengen Information System

The 1990 Schengen Convention also created the Schengen Information System (SIS). SIS is an international computerized database that allows countries to store and share information on aliens, asylum seekers, criminals, and those under surveillance by state security agencies.

The intention was to allow police and consular agents to share information on suspect individuals and on lost or stolen goods. The information system was viewed as a security measure that formed a necessary complement to the opening of internal borders.

Along with greater information sharing, Schengen also created greater police coordination on the observation and pursuit of suspected criminals. Police attained the right of “hot pursuit” — the ability to follow suspected criminals across borders for a certain distance, after which point domestic police continue the search.


Schengen’s provisions first came into force in 1995. At that time, travelers between Schengen states were no longer required to show their passports or be checked in other ways when crossing from one Schengen country to another.

Most airports in the Schengen area were split to create one terminal for those traveling within the Schengen area and another for those traveling to or from outside countries. Therefore, crossing from one side of the airport to another can involve a passport check.

Train travel was greatly facilitated. Since Schengen’s implementation, trains have not been required to stop at borders between Schengen countries for passport inspections. If passport or visa checks are needed, inspectors can board the train and examine passengers’ documents during the journey.

Visitors from outside the Schengen area benefit from coordinated visa policy under Schengen. Schengen states set a common list of countries whose citizens are required to hold a visa to travel within the Schengen area, and they issue Schengen visas for travelers meeting common requirements. Depending on the type of permit issued, visitors with a visa from any one Schengen country can then use the document to visit either several or all other Schengen countries for up to 90 days.

The Schengen agreement necessitated some level of mutual trust on immigration and asylum policy, since new residents of one country would then have visa- and passport-free access to all other Schengen members. However, harmonization of immigration policy was in principle a responsibility of the EU institutions, and not of Schengen itself.

Schengen did affect the asylum policy of participating states for a short period, beginning with its implementation in 1995. Article 30 of the Schengen Convention eliminated the possibility of so-called “asylum shopping” by including regulations on which country was responsible for adjudicating the application of any given asylum seeker.

However, on September 1, 1997, the Dublin Convention came into force, supplanting Schengen with a similar set of rules for determining responsibility for asylum applications. In 2003, the Dublin Regulation replaced the Dublin Convention.

Under Schengen, countries may reestablish their national border checks for a short period of time if it is necessary for national security. For example, Portugal reestablished frontier controls in the summer of 2004 during the European Football Championship in expectation of large flows of tourists and soccer hooligans.

France reinstated border checks after the July 2005 bombings in London, and Finland did so during the August 2005 World Athletics Championship in Helsinki. This flexibility has allowed Schengen to remain intact even in times where signatory states’ experience significant concerns as a result of exceptional events.

Integration into the European Union

The Treaty of Amsterdam, signed in 1997, formally incorporated Schengen into the framework of the European Union as the Schengen acquis. The Schengen acquis includes the Schengen Agreement of 1985, the Schengen Convention of 1990, as well as various decisions and agreements adopted in Schengen’s implementation. When the Amsterdam Treaty came into force in 1999, decision-making power for Schengen came under the Council of Ministers of the EU.

Although Schengen had officially become part of the EU, the agreement did not apply to all Member States. The United Kingdom initially opted out, preferring to maintain its own national borders. Ireland followed suit in order to maintain its Common Travel Area with the UK.

However, the UK and Ireland do participate in some aspects of Schengen, including the Schengen Information System. Iceland and Norway also signed an agreement with the EU in 1999 to continue their participation in the Schengen area.

Schengen and EU Enlargement

While the 10 new Member States that joined the EU in 2004 are expected to eventually implement the full Schengen acquis, they have not yet, in the eyes of the existing Schengen states, met the requirements involved in the acquis.

Before the new EU members can join Schengen fully, and before they can eliminate internal border controls, they must implement the data exchange and information systems necessary to participate in Schengen, and they must prove they can effectively police their borders.

Currently, internal border controls with the new Member States are scheduled to be completely eliminated in October 2007.

Swiss voters approved a referendum in June 2005 granting the government permission to sign on to Schengen. Switzerland plans to eliminate border controls and implement Schengen’s other provisions by 2008.

Schengen II

In anticipation of the accession of these new Schengen members, it became necessary to develop a new information system, since SIS lacked the capacity to hold information from all states forming the expanded Schengen area.

The European Council issued guidelines in 2001 for the development of a second-generation information system (SIS II), which is expected to become operational in 2007. It will contain more data categories, including fingerprints and photographs, and allow more officials to view the data, including Europol, security services, police, customs, and border officials.

Schengen III?

Several of the Schengen countries — Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Austria — signed an agreement in May 2005 known as Schengen III. The agreement would create closer cooperation between countries in preventing and fighting terrorism and crime.

Schengen III calls for the creation of shared national databanks to store DNA information, fingerprints, and vehicle identification for known or suspected criminals. It would allow for armed "security escorts" on planes and include measures to fight illegal migration.

The agreement would establish immigration liaison officers to advise countries on any new information in the field of illegal immigration and offer advice on recognizing fraudulent documents. It would also require joint action on the repatriation of illegal migrants, including joint expulsion flights.

While these measures are already included in the EU, the new agreement establishes national points of contact to coordinate these activities, which could facilitate their greater use. This agreement is not part of Schengen, as such, nor of the Schengen acquis. However, like the original Schengen Agreement, the cooperation developed between countries under Schengen III is intended to eventually be expanded to the entire EU.


Freedom of movement across much of Europe has progressed significantly since the 1980s, creating greater ease of trade and travel for EU citizens and non-EU citizens alike. However, while opening the gates to travel within “Schengenland,” Schengen also created the possibility for free movement of unauthorized migrants, criminals, and potential terrorists if they are not stopped through the timely use of well-gathered information.

Therefore, while Schengen itself did not greatly change European immigration policy, its creation did necessitate policy changes in other EU arenas, and it is one factor underlying continued harmonization on issues such as the management of visa policy, immigration policy (on both legal and illegal immigration), and asylum, as well as greater cooperation on security issues.

The development of Schengen III suggests that integration will continue to deepen, particularly concerning efforts to combat terrorism and illegal migration. As the EU grows and as free movement extends eastward, Schengen will bring the benefits of freedom of movement, but it will also call upon European nations to develop increasing trust in each other’s ability to control who is allowed to enter and enjoy these benefits.


BBC News. 2004. “France boosts security for D-Day,” June 1. Available online.

BBC News. 2005. “Swiss Vote to Ease Border Control” June 5. Available online.

BBC News. 2005. “Q&A: Schengen Agreement” August 2. Available online.

EUROPA-Gateway to the European Union. “The Schengen acquis and its integration into the Union.” Available online.

Geddes, Andrew. 2003. The Politics of Migration and Immigration in Europe. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Münz, Rainer. 2004. Briefing at Migration Policy Institute: “Toward a Common European Migration Regime?” February 18.

Papademetriou, Demetrios. 1996. Coming Together or Pulling Apart?: The European Union’s Struggle With Immigration and Asylum. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Revue Elargissiment. 2005. “The Schengen ‘Acquis’ and the New Member States.” February 7. Available online.