The Borders of Schengen

by Alice Cunha (Volume editor) Marta Silva (Volume editor) Rui Frederico (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 195 Pages
Series: Euroclio, Volume 93


Currently, we are witnessing a «border game» with participants on a global scale. The massive movement of illegal immigrants and refugees who have arrived in Europe over the last few months has led political leaders, activists’ movements and anonymous citizens to rethink practices and discourses. The media have multiplied news stories about mobilization initiatives that go well beyond the sphere of the state and even operate on the fringes of the law. Nationalism and identity issues have found their way onto the EU and its member-states’ agenda while the international community argues about the urgency to collaborate to address one of the greatest problems seen in Europe since the Second World War. Schengen borders have been suffering reconfigurations on an almost daily basis and Schengen has even been temporarily suspended in some countries, with the ghost of the end of the Union hovering over Europe.
The series of multidisciplinary texts collected in this book offer the reader a variety of perspectives on the understanding of the Schengen area. Broadly speaking, this volume includes reflections on subjects that embrace the debates on the concept and practices of the free movement of persons within Europe, the security dimension of the European Union, illegal immigration and migration management, human rights and the role of various players and interests.
This is the book to read if you wish to understand the latest developments in the Schengen area on its 30th anniversary.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Schengen: removing borders while building fences? Introduction
  • Schengen: people, borders and mobility
  • Part I The Free Circulation of Persons: Actors, Policies and Challenges
  • Dialogues beyond the ‘fortress Europe’ : Tracing back the genesis and evolution of the ‘free circulation of persons’ concept through EP Schengen Area debates, 1985-2015
  • The EU’s security actorness and the area of Freedom, Security and Justice: Assessing the external dimension of the internal rationale
  • The role of Schengen in the Europeanization of the migration policy: The Italian case
  • Romania’s Schengen accession bid: a sinuous path
  • The Charter of Lampedusa: Organised civil society in the EU multi-level system of governance
  • Part II Mobility and Border Management
  • Schengen and the security obsession: Selective citizenship, exclusion and the ironies of control
  • Changing Dynamics of “Migration Management”: The “Border” between the EU and Africa
  • Respect for fundamental rights at the door of fortress Europe: The particular situation of Ceuta and Melilla in the Schengen Area
  • Immigration policy within “Fortress Europe”: The legalisation of “hot returns” in Spain
  • Migration-related detention: A focus on the Italian context
  • Series Index

← 8 | 9 →

Schengen: removing borders while building fences?



The summer of 2015 has been marked by daily news reports, many of which have actually made the headlines, about the attempts of illegal immigrants and refugees to reach Europe. Never has this issue been talked about so much nor in such depth. In fact, this huge inflow has captured the attention of not only the media – who to some extent exploit stories of life and suffering – but also public opinion in the European Union’s (EU) member states who are far from unanimous about the opening (or closing) of Europe’s frontiers as they oscillate between humanitarian concerns and socioeconomic worries. Once again in the history of European integration, Europeans are divided between rhetoric (the desire to receive immigrants) and practice (the costs of this action).

From the time the first Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985, coming into force in 1995, until 2015 a great deal changed, including the EU itself. The idea to create a future Schengen Area which stipulated the gradual suppression of border controls at the common frontiers between these states was not, however, innovative within the European integration process since the Treaty of Rome (1957) had already referred to the concept of the freedom of circulation of people (article 3c).

From 1997 on, Schengen has been part of the institutional framework of the EU. It was included in the Treaty of Amsterdam and in the legal category of European citizenship, later undergoing alterations in the Treaty of Lisbon (2009). It focused on the notion of a “space of freedom, security and justice” with the objective of implementing common policies regarding not only the granting of visas and asylum but also immigration.

Basically, the Schengen area can be summed up as the free circulation of persons within the signatory countries and the abolition of internal borders. This does away with the need for border controls, which thus means that European citizens can circulate freely whenever they so wish without having to identify themselves or pass a border control when they cross the frontier from one country to another. ← 9 | 10 →

The idea of the Schengen area is thus essentially simple and efficient. Eliminating controls at the internal borders between member states could contribute to faster journeys with lower costs for the state (in terms of border patrols and border controls), increased exchanges between the different peoples of Europe and even to boosting the economy. At the celebrations commemorating the 30th anniversary of Schengen, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, emphasized the advantages and the importance of the abolition of internal border controls for the everyday lives of Europeans, their society and the economy when he said:

On a continent where nations once shed blood to defend their territories, today borders only exist on maps. […] Removing borders, ensuring safety and building trust took many years after two devastating world wars. The creation of the Schengen area is one of the greatest achievements of the EU and it is irreversible.1

Even though the advantages and convenience of having movement between the Schengen signatory states made easier for millions of people are known and recognised, in the chapter on free circulation the Agreement contains a list of ambiguities. Illegal immigration, human trafficking and terrorism frequently turn Schengen into a delicate political issue. In this sense, and in parallel with there being open internal borders, the control of external borders has been strengthened, with news reaching us of frequent and mediatized incidents involving boats capsizing and sinking and the humanitarian drama that is unfolding along the shores of the Mediterranean. Following the deaths that have occurred in the Mediterranean in 2015, the European Commission proposed on 13 May a new European Agenda on Migration2 that seeks to define both immediate and long term answers for the challenges that Europe is facing in this area. It has proposed various concrete measures including, among others, a recommendation that invites member states to resettle 20,000 people coming from third countries within a two-year period and a plan of action against migrant traffickers.

Data from 2014 shows that almost 300,000 people were detected irregularly crossing borders and that over 600,000 asylum applications were submitted, a 45% increase on the previous year. These figures ← 10 | 11 → highlight the attraction and pull of the EU but at the same time they place under scrutiny and generate public debate on asylum and refugee policies, both of which are feeling the strain owing to the contradictory demands of human rights, internal security and limitations of member states’ social security systems.

According to data from the last available Eurobarometer, immigration heads the list of Europeans’ biggest concerns (38% of those surveyed3), followed by the economic situation and then unemployment. This data shows how immigration is now seen as an external “threat” that, instead of merely rivalling factors of an internal order such as unemployment and economic performance, has now overtaken them. This concern has been instrumentalised by some extreme right parties, European nationalists and populists with a certain degree of success – to judge by election results in some member states – who are using an increasingly intense anti-immigration discourse. But immigration has always been one of the most complicated areas even for those parties of the left considered pro-European and remains so inasmuch as these parties continue to not really know how to resolve the issue; at the same time right-wing parties and conservatives are also being drawn towards a more radical discourse. There is no doubt though that Schengen, which has facilitated the mobility of European citizens, has been one of the EU’s major achievements. Moreover, despite the fact that intra-EU mobility has put pressure on national states at the level of social security, for example, it has greatly contributed to boosting the economy in general and to increasing cooperation, multiculturalism and the exchange of experiences between European peoples. Confronted with such data, some questions need to be asked: how can we idealize a European project that does not encompass the security and freedom of its citizens?; How can we protect borders in the global village of which the EU is part – and the Schengen area an even smaller part – while reconciling this securitist perspective with the founding idea of Schuman, Monnet or Adenauer?

However, if on one hand the abolition of internal borders within the EU has in fact had a positive and beneficial result, on the other, the question of the EU’s external borders, the control of which was not mentioned in the Treaty of Rome, still remains to be resolved. In addition to the illegal immigrants and refugees who arrive every day on the island of Kos in Greece or in Sicily in Italy, a paradigmatic example is what is happening in Calais at the border of France, a Schengen signatory state, and the United Kingdom, a non-signatory state. Immigrants who have legally or illegally managed to enter France only want to use the country where they are at present as a means to get through the Eurotunnel and head for ← 11 | 12 → the United Kingdom where they intend to settle and take up residence. We thus have a situation in which, with the non-application of Schengen to the whole territory, situations co-exist within the EU itself in which a national of a third country is able to cross an external border of the Union but then cannot circulate between different member states.

At this moment the continuing debate within the EU centres on the measures that should be adopted to respond to this enormous influx of people from third countries arriving at various EU doors. Member states on their own are incapable of dealing effectively with this situation which in some cases is already presenting signs of a humanitarian crisis to which various non-governmental organizations on the ground are trying to provide the best possible available answer. Several world leaders have also raised their voices, like Ban Ki-moon who urged European countries to “show compassion” and do more to help the migrants4 and Pope Francis who said that “we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery”.5

Free circulation is one of the established rights of European citizens and has allowed over one billion journeys a year to be made within the area. However, despite the benefits, Schengen is an imperfect space whose fragilities point to the shortcomings of European immigration policies, especially with regard to the inefficiencies of the labour markets and the threat to social security models. At the same time the difficulty that member states have to reach agreement on a common immigration policy is highlighted. Borders within the EU have virtually disappeared whilst the external ones are increasingly the target of attention. The debate has developed focusing on proposals such as the reinforcement of information systems, the exchange of these between states and simply closing borders to immigrants from outside the EU and even – in some circumstances and according to more pessimistic analyses – to citizens of other member states. In this respect, we must question whether it is urgent to reinforce information systems? What is the importance of biometric data? Is it important to circulate information regarding the services that control European frontiers? Should we then plan a Europe with full mobility? ← 12 | 13 →

In fact, Schengen is based on the idea of the free circulation of European citizens within this space, but this does not apply to citizens from third countries who must pass border controls, thus keeping out millions of people who are seeking a better life and future in the prosperous EU. Two different and opposing notions therefore co-exist: that of a Europe without borders and that of a fortress Europe, so that the Schengen area could even be, in an extreme case, a paradigmatic example of the co-existence of unrestricted mobility for some and the denial of that same freedom for others.

Schengen’s complexity arises particularly when the observer places himself on the outside, looking at the Schengen area macroscopically as a common space set within a more extensive and globalized panorama where there are other regions and political “micro-regions” that grant similar facilities to their members. And, paradoxically, when looking inside with his eyes microscopically focused, situations can be identified that call into question the idea of a space of freedom that is especially vaunted by European political decision-makers and therefore the irreversibility that Avramopoulos referred to.

Based on the work of Didier Bigo, Scherrer and Guittet, we can state that the first possible equivocation of this discourse lies in the association of the conception of a securitized space (“ensuring safety”), the supposed idea of freedom (“removing borders”) and the certainty that the two result in the construction of a generalized feeling of trust (“building trust”). According to these studies, it can be seen that the technologization of mobility control – which in part tends to be invisible, thanks to biometric body surveillance technology, numerical integration and the deterritorialization of the security apparatus with the construction of databases, thereby giving the impression that people can circulate without surveillance – tends to generate fear and hostility when faced with the other who is mobile and different. Thus, in a world that seeks to be increasingly fast and fluid, categories of individuals are being created: “authorized identities” and the rejected ones who do not satisfy the requirements for integration.6

The ambiguity lies primarily in the fact that in an area where there are policies to encourage mobility (for example, academic with the Erasmus programme) the frontier, rather than being diluted, acts as a filter where mobility and security are indissociable, thereby reinforcing mechanisms of domination between regions and creating excluded individuals who might potentially disturb this harmonious space. Control is exercised not only through immobilization or obstaculization when passing through the filter but also by innovating and enhancing identification techniques and ← 13 | 14 → technologies in an attempt to foresee risks and anticipate movements.7 It therefore culminates in the elaboration of a “risk profile”8 which leads to the stigmatization of undesirable immigrants who are often confused with criminals.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Schengen area borders illegal immigration security free movement of persons
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 195 pp., 1 ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

Alice Cunha (Volume editor) Marta Silva (Volume editor) Rui Frederico (Volume editor)

Alice Cunha is PhD in Contemporary History (NOVA University, 2013) and research fellow at Instituto de História Contemporânea. Marta Silva is PhD candidate at NOVA University. Rui Frederico is PhD in Sociology (ISCTE-IUL) and researcher at IHC-NOVA since 2013.


Title: The Borders of Schengen