Will This Be One of the Biggest Stories of the Year: The End of Europe’s Passport-Free Travel?

The free movement of people and goods is a fundamental idea of the European Union, and one that’s driven tremendous economic benefit to the region (not to mention the individual benefit from unburdening travel). It’s embodied in the Schengen Agreement and in other agreements.

The Schengen Area consists of 26 countries that abolished border controls with each other, effectively becoming a single country for travel. Ireland and the UK have opted out, but the area otherwise includes the vast majority of Europe. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland which are not part of the European Union are signatories to the Schengen Agreement.

When you enter a European country you go through passport control. If you connect at an airport to elsewhere in Europe you’re generally taking what amounts to a domestic flight. Travel within Europe, for the 400 million people inside the Schengen Area, is like travel inside the U.S.

In what could wind up being one of the most important stories in a long time, Sweden imposed border controls with Denmark and Denmark with Germany.

Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone is facing the biggest test of its two-decade existence after Sweden re-imposed controls on visitors crossing from Denmark across what had been one of most open borders in the world.

Hours after the measures came into effect, Denmark announced it would slap new controls on its own border with Germany, while Berlin warned that the 26-nation zone of passport-free travel was now “in danger”.

In all, Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have reintroduced border checks. Whither Schengen?

Source: UK Independent

When Germany imposed controls at its border with Austria in September, I believe they formally invoked a six month exemption allowable under ‘exceptional circumstances’ by the Schengen treaty. The agreement also allows for exemptions for “public policy or internal security.” So it’s not a violation as such. However if the tendency to impose border controls spreads, such that it’s the new normal, Schengen is undermined.

The Danish government imposed customs controls in 2011… and the government that did so was voted out of office. The move had been criticized by Germany, but now Germany is itself imposing some controls at its borders.

Historically Malta introduced border checks for the Pope’s visit and Estonia for President Obama’s visit. But those were temporary, and they’re rare.

Now, not so rare it seems.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think a bigger story is that the UK may have a referendum to leave the EU. If the UK leaves the EU, the changes will be far bigger than passport free travel. Having the world’s 5th or 6th largest economy (depends on the index used), leave the EU, will have a big effect on EU. The worst effect will be the ease for other countries to leave. Spain and Italy are also tottering with referendums.

  2. “but not Germany is itself imposing some controls at its borders.”

    I know you’ve responded about not caring about typos, but this is a biggie, material. Did you mean “now” rather than “not”? (3rd graf from bottom)

  3. What’s driving these border checks? Is it fear about aliens? Because if so, the measures may be temporary once that fear is quieted.

  4. I’ve taken that train many times. It can be so overcrowded during commuting times–I can’t imagine how difficult this will make it for so many people. Another overreaction by clueless government officials.

  5. Schengen may have been a boon for the EU but the accompanying 90-days-in-each-180-day-period admission limit within Schengen as a whole has certainly been a big inconvenience for long-term travelers who have Europe on their agendas.

  6. If the EU had its act together the 28 countries would have responded a few years back by beefing up security fences and controls at the EU’s external borders – the start of the problem, e.g. Greece, Spain, Poland, Estonia, Norway, Finland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, Croatia, Italy. Instead each nation acting on its own essentially ends intra-EU free movement, which is unnecessary. It’s like cutting of the nose to spite the face. The illegal migrants are mainly crossing first to Greece, Italy, Spain and then northwards. It’s not rocket science. In 2016 it will cost the Germans 16 billion Euros to care for the 1.1 million illegal migrants – much more than had they spent a quarter of that money to deploy police and military to the external borders! Lunacy! The irony is that the EU project is in jeopardy due to non-Europeans, but the Europeans allowed it to happen.

  7. The terrorists have won. And all because politicians didn’t want to build a consensus but instead were ramming their ideas down everyone’s throats.

  8. Does anyone know how much wealth was transferred (via Government) from West Germany to East Germany under reunification?

    Why this question you ask? Because it will give more perspective about how crazy the Schengen actions and the general approach to the refugee crisis has been poorly acted upon and processed by most people except Chancellor Merkel. It also seems appropriate that someone from East Germany has been the one to have the right vision for her country, but unfortunately maybe undone by fear mongers and those who are most shortsighted.

    20 years after reunification over Eur1.7 trillion had been transferred from West to East via Federal government in the form of infrastructure development, social programs, monetary union, etc. At the time in 2010 there solidarity fund was to run until 2019 at a cost of Eur72-85billion, all in the name of the Fatherland. Not all the money has been used wisely, but Germany didn’t go bankrupt and is still going from strength to strength because it took substantial and decisive action to invest in itself and the future, there was a time early on they were running current account deficits. Anyways, what West Germany got was cheap labor, new demand, and a means to strengthen economic base for the future. One thing though that came with Unification was a substantial net outward migration from East to West.

    The refugee crisis will, if the refugees never work or earn money, cost German taxpayers about Eur8 billion per year. That’s 10% of annual reunification costs that are ongoing almost 25years after reunification began. Germany can afford it easily even if they doubled the refugee intake. What is clear is that there is a chance for demographic rightsizing for Germany in this, youngish refugees, including a lot of low-skilled ones, and a chance to repopulate the East some as it continues to get the billions in reunification and solidarity funds.

    Germany is at full employment and is lacking in low skilled workers, the refugees can give an immediate relief to this and that would mean those expenses on refugees would be for training in work and language skills while gaining new payees into the system and filling in existing economic gaps. Germany’s advantage in Europe can actually be increased by taking in refugees, with the initial pain giving way to a demographic dividend. The key challenge for many is accepting the impact on the native German who might feel a loss of national identity or just fear the unknown.

    Europe in general is getting old, it lacks low skilled labor and enough household formation to drive demand, they have a gift horse in refugees staring at them and a chance to do something worthwhile, but they are so afraid of the initial challenge they are all going to shoot themselves in the foot. They will keep the refugees out, undermine their own existing economic flows, and then still wonder why things remain bleek in the long run.

  9. Thanks to crazy Merkel throwing Germany and the EU under the bus! Certainly was a mess when I was just there. Immigration and related security issues will get much worse I suspect.

  10. Ironic, no more “free” extra pages in US Passports anymore. It’s $110.00+ to renew. Thank you Maria Barf of the State Dept..

  11. So much misinformation. Schengen does not allow passport-free travel, that’s one of the “four freedoms” of the EU. A French person can enter the UK with only her ID, not a passport (nor Visa or any type of travel permite). And there’s no opt-out for that, every country has to allow all citizens of all EU countries in.
    What Schengen does is abolish border control between the countries that belong to the Schengen agreement, which is significantly different. But travel was unrestricted in the EU (and the EEC before it) even before Schengen was created.

  12. It’s too bad that stronger northern countries are resorting to this, most likely due to poor border control of the southern countries. With so much uncertainty streaming into Schengen countries it’s no wonder countries are working to secure their borders, one hole in the border protection means nearly a free pass in the old Schengen; it of course makes sense to check everyone coming into a country.

  13. @Rui N – borders ARE restrictions, it is false to say “travel was unrestricted in the EU even before Schengen was created” … the border process is a significant transaction cost that limits the flow of goods and people.

  14. @Melissa: Everyone who renews their passport should check the box marked “52 Page Book (Non-Standard)” on the Form DS-11 or DS-82. You never know what your travel plans will be 7-9 years in the future.

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