Wednesday, 10 November 2010

EU to crack down on Schengen border violations

Today the European Commission announced a crackdown on member state compliance with the Schengen passport-free area rules, and during the press conference I couldn't help but smile to myself. The other week I had a bit of a rant with my friends after I encountered a British woman on a airport shuttle bus in Prague who didn't know what Schengen was. Since then the joke has been that I'm obsessed with Schengen. So naturally, I had to write a blog entry about the new proposal.

So, the Prague airport story. I was taking the airport shuttle to the airport and we were just pulling in to terminal 1 (the "international" terminal with flights to the US, China, etc) when an announcement came on saying that this terminal was for non-Schengen countries, and the following terminal would be for Schengen Area countries. I had my headphones on but I could see that there was a woman a few seats away from me with a confused expression on her face asking her neighbour something. By the time I took my headphones off we were already on our way to terminal 2, but I could then hear that the woman was frantically asking people what Schengen was. Apparently her neighbour, also a Brit, had reassured her "Oh Schengen means EU. You're going to London? Then terminal 2, definitely."

The woman looked a bit frantic and I could tell she was running late for her flight, so I quickly told her she had actually been misinformed, the UK is not in the Schengen Area and she would need to go back to terminal 1. "WHOT!?" she screamed. "What's all this Schengen rubbish?" We got off at terminal 2 and I had to give her instructions for how to get back to terminal 1, which as anyone who's been to Ruzyne airport knows, is no easy task. After I had sent this panicked woman on her way I sent out a rather irritated tweet from my phone noting that this woman was probably going to miss her flight because she didn't know what Schengen is. Well I never!

The cyber-responses to my tweet came in two categories. From my continental European friends, "What a buffoon!" From my British friends, "What's a Schengen?" One UK friend insisted that there's no reason Brits should know what Schengen is since they're not in it. Well, it certainly made a lot of difference for this woman who probably missed her flight!

Over the past ten years European airports have reorganised themselves into Schengen and non-Schengen sections for one very good reason: they are forbidden to conduct an immigration passport check on people who are flying to another Schengen country. Since such checks are typically done now as you enter an "international" terminal, it's important to make sure all flights going to non-Schengen countries (and therefore needing a passport check) leave together. So flights to the EU countries not in the Schengen Area, essentially the UK and Ireland, now leave with the intercontinental flights to America, China, etc.

In pressing the subject further, I found that many Brits and Americans who have lived in continental Europe for years are also, bizarrely, entirely unaware of the Schengen rules. This perplexes me. Haven't they noticed that they need to go through two immigration checkpoints when they fly to London (one to exit Schengen and one to enter the UK), but they go through no such control when flying to say, Spain or Finland?

But given the inconsistency in which some states have applied the Schengen rules, perhaps it's not surprising that they're so confused. I've heard several stories of people being stopped and asked for their passport when traveling between countries like France, Spain, Germany and Italy. Under the Schengen agreement these checks are illegal, but I've heard anecdotal evidence that they are taking place anyway.

I was living in Switzerland when that country joined the Schengen Area in 2008 and I saw some of this incorrect application first hand. Even after they had joined I saw active border patrols on the German-Swiss border, even though these checks are now illegal. And there were no such controls at the border with Liechtenstein, which technically Switzerland was required to set up because Liechtenstein's Schengen entry was delayed due to its lack of cooperation in a banking investigation. Of course, it gets a bit tricky because in all continental European countries authorities have the right to demand that you show them an ID at any time. But under Schengen rules, they cannot ask for that ID at the border for the purpose of blocking entrance into their country. I've never been stopped at an internal EU border crossing, but if I ever am I will definitely refuse to show my passport and I will recite the following Schengen provisions of the Schengen Borders Code:
  • According to article 22, member States must remove all obstacles to fluid traffic flow at road crossing-points at internal borders. They cannot make cars slow down or stop.
  • According to article 21, flights to other Schengen countries must be treated the same as domestic flights for the purpose of passport control. An airport can only set up a passport/immigration check for Schengen passengers if it also does so for flights within the country.
  • Also in article 21, police officers may not demand that a person show his or her passport on the basis that they are crossing an internal border. If they ask for ID, it must not have border control as an objective and must not give the appearance of being a border control (ie, it can't be at the border).
Incidentally, the United States has similar laws preventing states from setting up border controls with other states. Though I don't think it's been tried in the last 100 years, US states are specifically forbidden to ask for IDs from people crossing state lines.

EU crackdown

The EU rules are quite clear in the legal text, yet I often hear stories about them not being followed. Today the commission announced it has adopted a proposal to increase monitoring of how member states are implementing the Schengen rules with on-the-spot unannounced visits. It follows the publication of a report last month showing that certain internal Schengen borders still had systematic checks and many member states are still forcing cars to slow down at border crossings (I've seen this several times).

The report also found that member states were not notifying the commission far enough in advance when they intended to implement 'temporary border controls' during extraordinary situations. A Schengen state is permitted by articles 23 to 31 to reinstate border controls for a short period if deemed in the interest of national security, but it has to follow a consultation procedure before such an action. For example in 2004 Portugal instituted controls during the European Football Championship. France instituted temporary controls for the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Spain temporarily reinstated border controls during the 2004 wedding of Crown Prince Felipe. But the report found that member states were not adequately informing the commission before instituting these controls.

In presenting the new commission investigations into member state behavior, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström called the Schengen rules, "one of the greatest achievements of European cooperation, and something that really benefits the citizens." Like the issue of France not respecting freedom of movement rules in its deportation of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens, this is another area in which the commission is obligated to protect EU citizens from abuses by individual member states. The ability to cross a border without showing a passport may not seem that important at first blush, but the abolition of internal borders was a major milestone in EU integration and is has significant economic, security and symbolic importance.

The new rules will also beef up EU patrols on the Schengen Area's external borders. The EU now has oversight on the policing of the land borders at the east of Europe. Last month Greece became the first country to request an EU immigration force to police its border with Turkey, as it admitted it cannot deal with the huge flow of illegal migrants trying to cross. Such patrols will likely increase in the future, with the objective of protecting the entire area. It makes sense, after all in the US it is the federal government which is responsible for border policing, not the specific states lying next to the border.

Will the crack-down increase the general level of knowledge about Schengen rules among the EU public? Probably not. But for anyone reading this blog who doesn't know the rules, now you know! And who knows, maybe that helpless British tourist is reading this right now as well. Just remember, although the EU now administers Schengen (it didn't initially), not all EU states are in Schengen and not all Schengen states are in the EU. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are all in Schengen but not in the EU. The UK and Ireland are in the EU but have special opt-outs so they don't have to join Schengen. EU states Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus are not yet in Schengen but will join soon, since EU entry requires eventual entry into Schengen (though I still don't understand how entering Schengen makes sense for Malta and Cyprus). It's all a little confusing, but here's a helpful euler diagram that will hopefully make it a bit easier. The red circle in the Schengen Area, the blue circle is the EU, and the green circle is countries that use the euro currency.

Incidentally, the reason Ireland isn't in the Schengen Area? The UK won't allow it. Ireland has had an existing passport-free agreement with the UK since its independence in 1923. Joining Schengen would invalidate that, and the Republic of Ireland would have to set up passport controls on the border between itself and Northern Ireland - a nightmare for local commerce. So Ireland and the UK either join Schengen together, or they don't join at all. And the UK refuses to join.


Brad Zimmerman said...

At every Polish border crossing with Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Germany you have to slow down, usually to 20 or 30 kph, as you cross. There is a reason for this, though it isn't very good: they haven't actually dismantled the border checkpoints. Drivers essentially drive around the checkpoints rather than "through" them, a detour of about 20-50 meters.

It doesn't surprise me that this is the case but it does surprise me that they made "not slowing down" a rule/law.

french derek said...

I've been asked for my ID once, in Germany, on the train, when entering from Belgium. Its the only time it's happened on this trip and I still don't know why. Perhaps a terrorism alert?

As for entry by car, at border crossings between France and Spain, and between France and Belgium, it's still necessary to slow down. Never seen anyone official-looking on the Belgian crossing but the Spanish crossings are swarming with them. But then, Spain is a well-known route for drugs and illegal immigrants. (NB I've never been stopped!).

Maybe a follow)up question for your friends might be "And where is Schengen?" ;-))