The Schengen Agreement on passport-free travel is one of the pillars of the European Union. The Schengen Area entered into force in 1995 and has expanded considerably since then.
On June 14, 1985, in the village of Schengen in Luxembourg, EU member states Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed an agreement which provided for the gradual abolition of controls at their common border crossings. Five years later, the five countries signed another agreement which governed the conditions that ensured the free movement of people.
Reunification delays entry into force
It took another five years for the Schengen Treaty to finally come into force - a delay due in part to the German reunification in 1990. On that day, March 26, 1995, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal eliminated their border controls.
The Treaty of Amsterdam, which came into force in 1999, made the Schengen Agreement part of EU law and effectively realized the principle of freedom of movement, one of the most important precepts of the internal market.
In addition to the abolition of border controls, the 142 articles of the agreement included sections dealing with the harmonization of visa and asylum policies, the common fight against drug-related crime and increased controls at the EU's external borders. The agreement also led to the creation of the Schengen Information System (SIS), a governmental database that allows EU police departments to exchange information on those wanted by police within seconds.
A system to organize the electronic collection of visa information and the movement of people entering and exiting the Schengen Area is in the works. With the help of this system, known as Smart Borders, checks at Europe's external borders should be fully automated, including the recording of fingerprint information from all non-EU citizens travelling in the bloc.
Schengen Area has grown considerably
After several enlargements, the Schengen Agreement has now been adopted by 25 European countries. In addition to 22 EU states (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden), a further three countries - Iceland, Norway and Switzerland - have also fully ratified the agreement. Special rules apply for Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, while EU states, are still not part of the Schengen Area. And Cyprus will continue to be bound by border controls until a solution is found to the territorial dispute on the island.
Today, free movement within the Schengen Area is a reality for EU citizens. But in exceptional cases, such as major international events like the European and world soccer championships or G8 and NATO summits, border controls may be re-introduced.
Some EU states, led by France and Germany, have proposed enforcing border controls in an attempt to prevent an influx of refugees into Europe. In 2011, Denmark attempted to re-introduce customs controls at its borders but abandoned the plan after a few months.
The granting of visas to the Schengen Area is also part of the asylum procedure in the European Union. Refugees and asylum seekers are usually only given a residence permit for the country of entry, and are therefore not able to move freely throughout Europe.