Schengen: what issues affect the border-free zone? 

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Schengen is facing challenges that might endanger its very existence. Learn more about these issues and their consequences for the border-free area.

The Schengen zone faces serious challenges ©AP Images/European Union-EP  

The Schengen area has been under stress over the past decade owing to successive crises. Under Schengen rules, the reintroduction of border controls at internal borders should be a temporary and exceptional measure and several EU countries introduced internal border controls in response to terrorist attacks and the considerable influx of refugees into the EU in 2015. The flow of migrants and asylum seekers was seen as a threat to internal security and affected member states used the provisions of the Schengen Borders Code to introduce internal border controls.

 

The outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 also pushed several EU countries to bring back border controls, in an attempt to control the spread of the virus.

 

How much do border controls cost and who is affected?

 

The border controls disrupt the free flow of people, goods and services across the EU. It mainly affects commuters (1.7 million people cross the border every day to work in another EU country), tourists and transport companies. In addition there are administrative and infrastructure costs for the public sector.

 

Over two years the cost of border controls is estimated at €25-50 billion in one-off costs and €2 billion in annual operating costs. Find out more details in our briefing.

Map of the Schengen area  

Reinforcing the Schengen zone

 

The EU has recently adopted several measures to reinforce the integrity of the Schengen area:

 

 

Restoring Schengen

 

In December 2021, the European Commission proposed an update of the rules governing the Schengen area, aiming to ensure that reintroducing internal border controls remains a measure of last resort and promote the use of alternative measures such as targeted police checks and enhanced police cooperation.

The European Parliament is working on the proposal. MEPs have on several occasions argued against the frequent reintroduction of controls, which hampers free movement of people across the EU.

In a vote on 18 October 2022, MEPs reiterated their call for Romania and Bulgaria to be admitted to the Schengen area as soon as possible, stressing that free movement is at the heart of the EU project.

On 10 November 2022, Parliament voted in favour of Croatia’s accession to the free-travel area before the end of 2022.

The Schengen zone in numbers 
  • 26: the number of countries in the Schengen zone 
  • 4: how many non-EU countries are part of Schengen (Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) 
  • 5: EU countries that are not part of Schengen (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Ireland, Romania) 
  • 50,000: length of the Schengen zone's external borders in kilometres 

This article was initially published in May 2018 and was last updated in November 2022.