Passport, border and customs checks are foreign concepts for most young people in western Europe. For a decade now, borderless travel through 12 EU states has been a reality, thanks to the Schengen Agreement.
Border checks inside the EU are the exception, not the rule
It finally happened on March 26, 1995. "We've now succeeded in completely doing away with borders," proclaimed former Dutch Defense Minister Wim van Eekelen. Ten years ago, in the tiny Luxembourgian border town of Schengen, the treaty signed by France, Germany and the Benelux countries came into effect, making borderless travel possible.
Since then, thousands of tourists have made a point of visiting the tiny village. There, they find a memorial, and now, a small info-center. Mayor Roger Weber is pleased that Schengen has achieved international recognition because of its association with travel freedom.
"Sure, we're proud that the agreement was signed in Schengen," he beams. "It was actually more of a coincidence, but we're happy that it happened here."
The entrance to Schengen
Back then, officials were on the lookout for a border crossing for the five founding states: Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Since Luxembourg was holding the rotating EU Council presidency at the time, the choice fell on the tiny village on the Mosel river. The introduction of total freedom of travel was an experiment, beyond the actual agreements of the European Union.
At the core of the EU identity
Now, Schengen belongs to the core of the European identity. Twelve of the 25 EU states have signed the agreement. Hardly any EU citizens have to show their papers at the EU's borders these days. Only the British and Irish have to prove their identities upon crossing over to continental Europe as, due to their island status, they didn't join the Schengen Agreement.
On the other hand, Norway and Iceland -- both not members of the EU -- have joined the Schengen club. Switzerland too, recently decided to join. The newest member states in eastern Europe are also meant to soon add their signatures. In return, the EU Commission has promised its support in building up security on the EU's new external borders.
Belgium's Interior Minister Patrick Dewael, left, talks with his German counterpart Otto Schilly, center, and Luxembourg's Justice Minister Luc Frieden, as they agreed on the "Schengen III declaration", in Brussels, Friday May 28, 2004. It provides the reinforcement of police cooperation between the countries.
Partly because of this process, "Schengen" has become synonymous with heightened external border controls and more cooperation between police forces. That has its advantages, but also its problems. Above all, privacy protectors have criticized the "Schengen Informations-System 2" being set up by the EU. The system is meant to handle more data, to which all police and intelligence services in the EU will have access. The computer network will be used to exchange information on suspects between all Schengen states.
As a parallel, the EU Commission has proposed a Visa Computer System that would contain information on all people entering and leaving via the EU's external borders. However, member states have not yet been able to agree on such a system.
"I love Schengen!"
An EU diplomat in Brussels admitted that Schengen has undoubtedly given criminals lots more freedom of movement -- something that has yet to be mirrored in the way that police forces cooperate across internal borders.
Despite such problems, most people in the EU would likely agree with the statement made by an enthusiastic young American tourist who entered into the Schengen-area and is now travelling hassle-free from country to country: "I love Schengen! It's fantastic."