As recently as 12 years ago, anyone travelling around Western Europe faced continual passport or national identification checks as they crossed from one nation to another. Those entering the region from outside Europe needed to provide visas when crossing borders. At times, this led to long queues and traffic jams, disrupting trade and tourism. But today, thanks to the Schengen Agreement, the situation has changed completely.
On 14 June 1985, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany signed the Schengen Agreement to gradually abolish controls at their common borders.
This took practical effect 10 years later, when Spain, Portugal, Austria, Italy, Greece, Finland, Sweden and Denmark also joined. Since 2001, Schengen has also been implemented by all of the Nordic countries, including Norway and Iceland.
With controls at the common borders of these countries abolished, freedom of movement for Schengen citizens and nationals of other countries has greatly improved. A person from outside the EU may now obtain a visa entitling him to stay in the 15 Schengen countries for up to 90 days over a six-month period, as long as the visa remains valid.
Checks and balances
While citizens of countries who have signed the agreement can now move between implementing countries without any checks, anyone wishing to enter or leave the Schengen zone is subject to standard border controls. Here, procedures are defined according to guidelines agreed to by all participating countries. This is necessary, since a person acceptable to one country but not to another can still enter both. The Schengen members have also harmonised their policies on issuing visas and have a common list of countries whose nationals require visas.
One key aspect of the agreement was the creation of the Schengen Information System. The system provides personal data on specific individuals to border posts, police stations and consular agents throughout the Schengen area. All Schengen states have access to the data and can supply information to the common network through individual national networks, which are connected to the central system.
But why should a country take on all these measures, costs and efforts? The answer is simple. The Schengen Agreement allows freedom of movement, which is important for the internal market of the EU. Non-EU nationals can travel freely across frontiers, meaning that tourists are likely to spend money in a number of European countries.
The economic element is also important to Schengen citizens - particularly those who live near national borders - as they can choose more freely where to go shopping. Eventually, this should help to reduce price differentials across borders. Overall, this will reinforce Europe's free market by increasing cross-border competition and making supply and demand the final arbiter of prices.
A further advantage of Schengen is closer co-operation between the immigration services of participating governments. Visa sections and consulates have begun working together more actively, sometimes even in the same building. Some of these institutions hold regular 'Schengen meetings', where they share information about visa applicants and procedures and work towards enhancing their services by providing smoother movement between nations and better intelligence sharing between agencies.
Visa sections abroad fulfil a vital task in safeguarding a country's security by ensuring that those who could pose a threat to the country are not granted visas. The Schengen Information System, because it is accessible to all participating countries, helps to prevent such people from receiving visas by providing information on applicants who have been refused visas by other countries for specific reasons, such as having links to terrorism. In the future, the system could be extended to include biometric data, such as fingerprints or DNA information.
However, there are possible disadvantages to the Schengen Agreement. First, the system is based on a treaty between sovereign states. Any changes to it would therefore require the unanimous agreement of all Schengen members, an arrangement that could prove to be inflexible. Nevertheless, maintaining the current common security arrangements is seen by some countries to be more important than future flexibility.
Furthermore, the system is less harmonious than it might appear. The Schengen guidelines consist of several hundred pages, the bulk of which concern exemptions to the common rules. These exemptions make the rules less standardised and more complicated than they seem at first.
For example, member states are permitted to suspend the Schengen rules temporarily and reinstate border controls in the event of a particular threat and in the interest of national security - due to a terrorist attack or bird flu outbreak, for instance. From the point of view of a government, this is an advantage, but using such exemptions frequently could lead to confusion and uncertainty for travellers.
It is a massive task to control international crime, drug smuggling, human trafficking and illegal immigration across national borders. Even within the Schengen area, the criminal laws are not consistent. Since border controls have been abolished in the region, it is more difficult to catch international drug dealers, who may seek to take advantage of the laxer laws in some countries. To combat this, Schengen member states could harmonise their laws to limit the extent to which criminals can benefit from the relaxation of border controls.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Therefore, Schengen can only be as good as its weakest member. If just one immigration officer were careless or corrupt, people would be able to enter the zone unhindered. Aware of this danger, the Schengen Executive Committee meets regularly assess the situation and formulate solutions to real or potential problems.
Another challenge will be integrating the new EU member states into the Schengen Agreement. As a precondition for abolishing the controls on these states' borders with existing EU member states, the countries that joined the EU in May 2004 must pass a test to show that they meet Schengen criteria. They must demonstrate preparedness in four key areas: airport border controls, systems for issuing visas, capacity for police co-operation with police forces in other countries and ability to protect the personal data on the Schengen Information System. After proving their systems are operational and meet the necessary specifications, the new EU member states are expected to become full members of Schengen in October 2007.
So far, the Schengen Agreement has worked well. New members have not been allowed to join without meeting rigorous standards. Reforms to Schengen's procedures, although they require unanimity, are still ongoing. For example, the system that allows border agents to add supplementary information to the Schengen Information System is to be replaced with a new system that will improve data-sharing between national networks and central systems. Under these circumstances, why are the UK and Ireland still reluctant to join Schengen?
Outside the agreement
The UK takes part in some aspects of Schengen, such as criminal justice co-operation, law enforcement and the Schengen Information System. Nevertheless, until now, the UK and Ireland have preferred to retain control of cross-border movement as a national responsibility. One argument advanced for this is that Schengen could result in a soaring number of migrants. But evidence shows otherwise. According to official statistics, between 1994 and 2004, the net figure of foreign immigrants to the UK increased considerably, from 126,000 to 342,000 per year. In the same period in Germany, the number of immigrants fell from 225,100 to 53,800 per year, despite the fact that Germany sees itself as the likely destination of many illegal immigrants.
Admittedly, there would be relatively few benefits at this stage for the UK and Ireland to join Schengen, largely due to their island nature and lack of national identity cards.
However, non-EU nationals living in the UK and Ireland would benefit from the UK and Ireland joining Schengen, as they currently have to obtain two separate visas to travel from the UK to the Schengen area. Joining Schengen would also give the UK the chance to benefit from the strengthened controls at the EU's external borders. The UK could also benefit economically by allowing Schengen nationals and visa-holders to enter its borders freely. The tourists who travelled to Germany to watch the 2006 World Cup would seize the opportunity to visit the UK for a similar event, which could mean huge profits for the UK.
Tanja Knittler is head of cultural affairs, press and legal affairs at the German Embassy in Norway