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The Schengen Area: an European border-free zone and how to know to travel within it

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

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Author: Alessia Fucile

Date of Publicaton: 11/03/2023

On 7th February 1992, in Maastricht (the Netherlands), the Treaty on European Union (TEU) was signed. In particular, it established an economic and monetary union between EU member States, as well as the automatic acquisition of EU citizenship by the citizens of these countries. Exactly European citizenship results in the right of persons to move and stay freely within the Schengen Area.

What is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area is a free movement zone without internal borders, where EU travelers aren’t subjected to passport control and they only need an identity card. The two agreements that established this area were signed in the small village of Schengen, in Luxembourg, on the border between Germany and France. The first one is the Schengen Agreement (the signatory States were just Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg), in 1985. On the other hand, the second one is the Schengen Convention (also signed by Italy), in 1990.

Today, the countries which are fully members of this free circulation zone are 27. Specifically, we are talking about the following:

  • Iceland

  • Liechtenstein

  • Norway and

  • Switzerland

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All these countries are part of the Schengen Area, but not of the European Union. In addition, the United Kingdom and Ireland decided not to join the Convention, unlike Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania that are negotiating to become members. Therefore, the Schengen Area is governed by the Schengen Borders Code.

Benefits of the free circulation zone

Benefits of the free circulation zone include:

  1. the abolition of border controls, that allows EU citizens to travel freely;

  2. the harmonization of border controls and common visa requirements. In fact, this means that people living in the Schengen Area are allowed to travel with their identity card or passport. So, this is unlike the non-EU nationals that must get a single-entry visa, valid for the entire Schengen Area;

  3. police and judicial cooperation, is the way that security forces work together in crime prevention or to arrest criminals, thanks to the introduction of a rapid extradition process;

  4. In 2013 was the birth and the continuous updating of the Schengen Information System (SIS). Of course we are talking about a database used by the border authorities to consult alerts on people and to ensure security within EU territory.

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The Schengen Area even supports tourism and cultural sectors in Europe, allowing about 1.25 billion journeys every year. Moreover, 1.7 million people live in a Schengen State, but they work daily in another one. So, taking also into account people’s study purposes or visits to relatives and friends, the total number of EU citizens crossing European borders every day reaches almost 3.5 million.

The conditions to entry and stay in a Schengen State

For stays up to 90 days, EU citizens just need their identity card or passport. However, the host member State may require registering their presence in the country. For long-term stays of more than 90 days, EU citizens aren’t required to hold a residence permit. However, it is important for them to have adequate financial resources and they need to take out health insurance. This is in case they want to avoid being a burden on the public finances of the host member State.

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Moreover, EU citizens’ relatives coming from a country outside the Schengen Area, on the contrary, must apply for a residence permit for the duration of the stay or over a five-year period. After five years of legal and uninterrupted stay in a member State, EU citizens and their families acquire the right of permanent residence. Yet, this could be lost only in the event of absence from the host country for more than two consecutive years. Additional restrictions on the right of entry and the expulsion from the Schengen territory may be put in place. This is just in case of abuse of rights or fraud and to avoid threats to public health, order and security.

How is the EU responding to the challenges of recent years?

In recent years, in fact, some events tested the functioning of the Schengen Area. Firstly, in 2015, about 1.83 million migrants crossed EU borders illegally and later, in 2020-2022, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a temporary reintroduction of border controls. Afterwards, the European Commission suggested a review of the functioning of the free circulation zone and the EU is currently evaluating making changes to the Schengen Borders Code. So, in case of approval, the reforms will introduce new practices to combat the instrumentalization of migrants. In addition to that, they will harmonize the regulatory framework for potential health emergencies and they will establish effective alternative measures to the reintroduction of border controls.

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