Schengen: a great Acquis arousing debates over the path of European integration

By Chloe Fabre | 9 May 2013

To quote this document: Chloe Fabre, “Schengen: a great Acquis arousing debates over the path of European integration”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 9 May 2013,, displayed on 02 June 2023

Nearly 20 years after the beginning of the removal of border control, the Schegen area constitutes one of the major achievements of the European integration. It gathers 26 countries among which 4 are not in the EU. It is often cited by Europeans as something they like about the EU. However, it has been put into question after the Arab Spring (spring 2011) and is currently undergoing a reform, which creates a great debate especially between several visions of European integration.


The removal of border control on the internal borders of the EU

In 1985, five EU countries – Germany, France, the Netherland, Belgium and Luxembourg – signed a treaty to facilitate border crossing for their citizens and harmonise border checks at their  borders. Progressively, it has been extended and became an EU policy with its integration to the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999.

A regulation agreed upon in 2006 summarises the main aspects of the Schengen Acquis: firstly, the establishment of the same procedures and controls at the external borders of the area; secondly, the removal of border controls at the internal borders. Concretely, it means for residents of the Schengen area that they can cross a border without even showing their ID and thus without being registered as crossing a border. This, nowadays, seems to be ordinary for many Europeans, however, it has long been difficult to cross a border. Even for some, crossing a border still means long queuing, waiting for borders checks. Those who took the Eurotunnel to cross the Channel, must have had this experience. The counter-part of this complete freedom of movement within the Schengen area is the establishment of a common external border. The regulation develops in length the different procedures and types of control to be done at external borders. This also led to the creation of a common visa, the Schengen visa. That means that somebody from China for instance has to apply for only one visa to get into the area. Along with this common external border, many data-based – such as the Schengen Information System – have been created to monitor and register who enters the Schengen Area.

Challenges to a system based on mutual trust between countries

However, the mood seems to have changed in the 1990s and several critics have been raised among which the creation of a fortress Europe, the burden-shifting of border control to external Member States, the incapacity of the latter to manage their borders. Indeed, with the Arab Spring and the resulting arrivals of many migrants to the southern European borders, several countries started criticising the functioning of the area. France, among others, reintroduced border control with Italy – according to a clause of the regulation. Plus, many critics were raised against Greece which was accused of not controlling its borders with Turkey, leaving an open-door to the Schengen area.

Debates about the reform of Schengen...

In reaction, the Commission tried to improve the governance of Schengen with two proposals in September 2011: the first one is about the establishment of an evaluation mechanism and the second one deals specifically with the possibility to reintroduce border controls at internal borders. The first regulation aimed at monitoring the implementation and respect of the Acquis, eventually providing with financial, technical or human support with, for instance, the European agency Frontex. The Commission would issue annually a report which would be discussed by the Council and the Parliament. The negotiations between the Council and the Parliament have been blocked for one year on this text. The Council wanted to change the legal basis of the regulation from article 77(2) to article 70 TFEU, leading to the exclusion of the European Parliament from the codecision process. The European assembly reacted, on 14 June 2012 blocking the negotiations of five texts which were considered as a priority by the Council. Currently, the three institutions are going under informal discussions with their legal services to find a compromise.

The second proposal is a direct reaction to the multiple reintroductions of border controls after the Arab Spring. The Commission envisages three circumstances where checks could be reintroduced : 1- in case of a foreseeable events which constitute a threat to public policies or internal security, for instance a major political event, 2- in case of unforeseen events such as a terrorist attack, 3- in case of a serious persistent deficiencies in the management of external borders. The Commission wanted to be the one to decide whether or not to reintroduce border control and to prolong it, except in the second case. However, the Council refused the full use of the powers granted to the Commission by the Lisbon treaty (2009) – that is the power to take decision through implementing acts, involving comitology (consultation of a committee composed of experts representative of Member States). Surprisingly, the Parliament agreed with the Council on that point. The Commission's proposal was a supranationalisation of the management of Schengen, while on the contrary, the Council and the Parliament opted for an intergovernmental dynamic where Member States keep their power and only discuss about the matter collectively.

 … Implying different visions of European integration

With the debates about the two proposals, we observe dispute over different visions of European integration. The Commission would like to stand as the European executive, while the Council refuses to hand its power over, especially on matters such as border crossing directly linked to immigration. In the middle, the European Parliament which tries to defend its codecision powers on Justice and Home Affairs acquired with the Lisbon Treaty and which, on the other hand, supports the Council in its refusal of supranationalisation. On the two texts, the negotiations are still informally on-going, and we cannot know what will come out of this reform.

However, we can already affirm that the rules of the game have changed, and that the role played by each institution is getting blurred. It translates a broader evolution of common sense about those topics toward a more cautious and securitised vision of free-movement. This is epitomised with the new proposal of the Commission for 'smart borders', creating a new data-base to monitor not only entry but also exit of the Schengen area. The choice over the Schengen area we collectively want, is one of those we will have to say next year, for the next European election.

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Photo source: Postcard edited by the European Parliament for 2009 election, from