The Schengen Agreement: What You Need To Know

German border controls
German police search a man suspected of smuggling people on the A3 highway from Austria to Germany in Rottal Ost near Passau, southern Germany, September 14. Germany re-imposed border controls on Sunday after Europe's most powerful nation acknowledged it could scarcely cope with thousands of asylum seekers arriving every day. Michael Dalder/Reuters

Germany sought to limit the staggering flow of refugees into the country by re-imposing border controls with Austria on Sunday in what Berlin is calling a temporary measure. The decision prompted accusations from some quarters—including UK Independence Party politician Douglas Carswell—that Germany had effectively withdrawn from the Schengen Agreement, one of the European Union's foundational treaties which regulates the free movement of peoples within the bloc.

As the refugee crisis continues to prompt mixed reactions across Europe—including Hungary building a border fence to keep people out and Macedonia considering a similar measure—here's what you should know about the Schengen Agreement.

What is the Schengen Agreement?

Signed in 1985 in the Luxembourgian town of the same name, the Schengen Agreement served to create a single European territory devoid of internal borders. It was supplemented by the Schengen Convention in 1990, which laid out the key terms of the agreement.

When it came into force in 1995, the main effect of the agreement was that citizens of signatory states could travel across borders without passports. The agreement was signed into EU law in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam.

Who's bound by the agreement?

Today, there are 26 countries in the Schengen area, which covers most of mainland Europe. 22 of these are EU members and four are non-EU member states—the latter being Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway.

The agreement was originally signed by France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1985. By the time internal borders were abolished on March 26, 1995, Spain and Portugal had also signed up. Italy and Austria followed suit in 1997, with Greece abolishing its border controls in 2000. The Nordic states—Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland—joined in 2001. In 2007, nine more European countries joined the area in a major enlargement: these were the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Finally, Liechtenstein and Switzerland entered into the Agreement in 2008.

Who's not bound by the agreement?

The U.K. and the Republic of Ireland opted out of the internal borders policy, though both have signed up to certain other parts of the agreement, such as the Schengen Information System (SIS)—a database allowing judicial authorities from signatory states to access information relevant to law enforcement.

Four other EU states—Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia—have not yet been admitted to the Schengen area.

Non-EU countries Serbia, Albania, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Ukraine and Russia are not part of the agreement. This is currently causing tension on the border between Serbia and Hungary, as this is a border of the Schengen area. Hungary is building a fence to keep out refugees and migrants.

Hungary refugees
Migrants pass under a highway security fence as they try to find a new way to enter Hungary after Hungarian police sealed the border with Serbia near the village of Horgos, Serbia, September 14, 2015. Marko Djurica/Reuters

The U.K. remains protected from the brunt of the refugee crisis by not being part of the Schengen area or the European mainland. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently pledged to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years after being widely criticized for not doing enough to assist with the crisis.

What can you do in the Schengen area?

The agreement offers freedom of movement to some 400 million EU citizens, who can cross internal borders within the Schengen area freely and without need to carry a passport. Freedom of movement is a fundamental right of citizens according to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, and the EU claims that its citizens make some 1.25 billion journeys per year within the Schengen area.

Non-EU citizens can obtain a Schengen visa—costing up to $112 for a long-stay visa—that allows them to move freely within the area.

Other features of the area include:

  • Common rules for those applying to cross the EU's external border, including common asylum policies
  • Enhanced police cooperation, including hot pursuitmeaning police can pursue a suspect across the borders of member countries
  • Access to the SIS for enhanced cooperation in fighting crime
  • Harmonization of visa rules for short-stay visas, which guarantee the right to stay for up to three months

Asylum policy has become a bone of contention in the current refugee crisis. According to another EU law—the so-called Dublin Regulation—responsibility for processing an asylum seeker's application resides with the EU state into which the asylum seeker first entered. However, Hungary has accused refugees of exploiting the Schengen system, by refusing to register for asylum in Budapest and seeking to move on to Germany and other western and northern European countries.

Has Germany abandoned the Schengen Agreement?

Technically, no. Schengen countries may re-enforce temporary border controls for 10 days, and these can be renewed in 20-day periods for a maximum of two months. Such controls can only be imposed in cases where "public policy or national security" require such a suspension of the agreement, according to the rules of the agreement.

When imposing the border checks—which are only affecting the Austrian border—German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizire said the step "has become necessary" and that asylum seekers "cannot choose the states where they are seeking protection," The Guardian reported.

After its latest move, Berlin is likely to get little sympathy from Budapest. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbn described the current crisis as a "German problem" and said that African and Middle Eastern refugees arriving in Europe were all intending to go to Germany.