Schengen Area Explained

By Inès Bourdon

Named after a small Luxembourgish city, the Schengen area is one of the key elements of the European project. Covering 26 countries (22 member states and 4 outsiders), it allows the concerned citizens to move freely and without any visa control in the zone. Some would even say it is the most impactful policy of the Union for its citizens. Yet, the Schengen area does not only cover the freedom of movement. 

What is exactly the Schengen area ?

Created in 1995, the area is the policy embodying the most the freedom of movement. It allows all concerned citizens to move freely around 26 countries, meaning they can live, study, work or even retire wherever they want without the hassle of a visa application. Tourists visiting Europe can also benefit from this zone, as visa are  valid for the whole area

In addition to being the world largest visa free’s zone, Schengen area also plays a role in ensuring security. Through the Schengen Information System (SIS), member states were given a unique opportunity to collaborate to fight against cross-border crimes, irregular migrations or terrorism. 

The practical side of Schengen

While living in a free visa zone sounds like a dream, it is nevertheless bound to rules. Citizens inside the area can move as they pleased, however crossing the external borders is more difficult. Indeed, as those borders are common to the whole zone, management policies have been adopted to ease the workload.  

In addition to the SIS, four other measures were taken. The Schengen Borders Code lays down the rules for crossing external borders and grounds for re-introducing internal borders checks. To help countries who have external borders to manage the traffic flows, member states also adopted the Internal Security Fund (ISF). The third measure was the Entry/Exit System which eased checks for non-EU citizens through electronic registration. The data collected can however not be shared with third parties, unless certain conditions. The last action taken was the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex. 

To summarize, Schengen area is not only the freedom of movements. It is also a strong security system targeting external European borders. 

Evolutions of the Schengen area

Like all things, Schengen has evolved to meet the challenges of its time and of the Union. The migration crisis of 2015 triggered the adoption of the instruments aforementioned and some were recently re-framed to include new issues. For example, as of July 2021, the ISF started to focus on cyber crime, in addition to all the others problematics it already tackled. Could the Schengen area grow in the future? Both Bulgaria and Romania have met the criteria to join, yet they still wait for the approval of the Council. Indeed its members need to approve unanimously new addition to the zone, which blocks them from accessing. As Croatia also started the application process, one could wonder who will be the first state to join Schengen?

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