European Union on Verge of Restricting Passport-Free Travel for 2 Years

Six weeks ago I asked, 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.

Now, according to the Associated Press, “European Union countries are poised to restrict passport-free travel by invoking an emergency rule to impose controls at several borders for two more years because of the migration crisis.”

  • Countries can impose border controls for up to 6 months
  • However that can be extended to 2 years “if a member is found to be failing to protect its borders.”
  • And that’s what they’re prepared to find with respect to Greece.

The documents show that EU policy makers are preparing to make unprecedented use of an emergency provision by declaring that Greece is failing to sufficiently protect it border. Some 2,000 people are still arriving daily on Greek islands in smugglers’ boats from Turkey, most of them keen to move deeper into Europe to wealthier countries like Germany and Sweden.

The EU gave Greece until early May to improve its border security, and acknowledges the government is “making progress.” But ferners are scary. And the EU needs cover because individual countries may extend border controls indefinitely on their own. And so they believe they have to impose border controls to save Europe from border controls. Or something like that.

European countries are reluctant to dismantle their emergency border controls. And if they keep them in place without authorization, EU officials fear the entire concept of the open-travel zone could be brought down.

A summary written by an official in the EU’s Dutch presidency for a meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers last month showed they decided that declaring Greece to have failed in its upgrade was “the only way” for Europe to extend the time for border checks. The official said they agreed to invoke the two-year rule under Article 26 of the open-travel agreement.

The EU is scambling to find a way to allow Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, and Norway to continue their Intra-European border checks, out of fear that they’ll do it whether EU rules permit it or not.

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, 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. Not exactly misstated, but Norway is technically not a member state of the European Union (although it is a party to the Schengen Agreement)

  2. @Gary, You state: “Travel within Europe, for the 400 million people inside the Schengen Area, is like travel inside the U.S.” Not really. That is the fundamental fallacy that proponents of the EU would like people to believe.

    Unlike the members of the EU, US states are not and have never been (except for the brief period of the War of Seccession) separate sovereign countries. So unrestricted travel inside the US involves no loss of sovereignty by US states. Under Schengen, the inability of the countries in the EU to control their own borders is a huge loss of sovereignty. Control of one’s borders is arguably the most important attribute that makes a country a country. Countries and populations in the EU are now coming face to face with some of the realities that the loss of sovereignty in the EU system entails.

  3. @john, From 1777 until 1791 the Vermont Republic was neither part of British North America nor the recently independent states of New York and New Hampshire. It minted its own currency, had its own postal service, and operated under its own constitution. For ten years beginning in 1836, the Republic of Texas was a similarly independent and sovereign country. And, for nearly one hundred years, the Kingdom of Hawaii was a modern, independent nation with an indigenous monarchy. OF COURSE several states have been “separate sovereign countries,” both before and after the “War of Seccession [sic]”.

    While I agree that comparing Schengen’s free movement principles with those found in the US is overly simplistic, it is not an entirely unfair comparison, either, especially when explaining the concept to Americans unfamiliar with the treaty.

  4. @Andrew, In none of your examples where the entities you cite states when they had sovereignty. The areas that became states were all independent Indian nations at one time like Hawaii. The EU is different. Very different.

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