The border-free Schengen Area guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens, along with non-EU nationals living in the EU or visiting the EU as tourists, exchange students or for business purposes (anyone legally present in the EU). Free movement of persons enables every EU citizen to travel, work and live in an EU country without special formalities. Schengen underpins this freedom by enabling citizens to move around the Schengen Area without being subject to border checks.
Today, the Schengen Area encompasses most EU countries, except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania. However, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are currently in the process of joining the Schengen Area and already applying the Schengen acquis to a large extent. Additionally, also the non-EU States Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have joined the Schengen Area.
The Schengen provisions abolish checks at EU's internal borders, while providing a single set of rules for controls at the external borders applicable to those who enter the Schengen area for a short period of time (up to 90 days).
The Schengen area relies on common rules covering in particular the following areas:
Any person, irrespective of their nationality, may cross the internal borders without being subjected to border checks. However, the competent national authorities can carry out police checks at internal borders and in border areas, provided that such checks are not equivalent to border checks. The non exhaustive list of criteria allowing to assess if police checks is equivalent to border controls is set out in the Schengen Borders Code. The Code is complemented by relevant case-law of the Court of Justice. It includes the following elements:
The police carries out checks under the national law of the Schengen country. Depending on the exact purpose, they can, for example, include identity checks.
If there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security, a Schengen country may exceptionally temporarily reintroduce border control at its internal borders.
If such controls are reintroduced, the Member State concerned has to inform the Council (and thus, other Schengen countries), the European Parliament and the European Commission as well as the public. The Commission is provides information on the current situation at the internal borders at its website: Temporary reintroduction of border controls.
Joining the Schengen Area is not merely a political decision of the joining State. Countries must fulfil a list of pre-conditions:
Applicant countries undergo a "Schengen evaluation" before joining the Schengen Area and periodically thereafter to ensure the correct application of the legislation.
Originally, the concept of free movement was to enable the European working population to freely travel and settle in any EU State, but it fell short of abolishing border controls within the Union.
A break-through was reached in 1985 in Schengen (a small village in Luxembourg), with the signing of the Agreement on the gradual abolition of checks at common borders, followed by the signing of the Convention implementing that Agreement in 1990. The implementation of the Schengen Agreements started in 1995, initially involving seven EU countries.
Born as an intergovernmental initiative, the developments brought about by the Schengen Agreements have now been incorporated into the body of rules governing the EU.