The Schengen area, associated in this part of the world with a single travel visa — valid across several countries in the European Union (EU) and beyond — is now 25 years. It symbolises an arena of relative success in the grand project of regional integration. It is hard to make a similar claim with equal confidence, many would argue, with respect to the other visible sign of transnational integration — the decade-old single currency — in the wake of the handling of the impact of the financial crisis in the 16 countries that constitute the eurozone. The Schengen area, now comprising 22 of the 27 EU states besides Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway, entails the absence of internal barriers in a territory along a 42,673 km external sea and 7,721 km land borders. The freedom of movement thus guaranteed to more than 400 million people constitutes one of the EU's founding goals, complementary to the other objectives related to the movement of goods and services. During the early days of the elimination of national boundaries, the Benelux three decided to dispense with border checks in the 1960s. Their attempt blossomed into something more substantial when the big two EU founder members, France and Germany, joined forces in the historic agreement at the Belgian town of Schengen in 1985. When the Schengen Convention entered into force a decade later, Spain and Portugal had already been roped in.

A distinguishing feature of the Schengen zone is that its evolution has defied the general logic of EU expansion wherein each new impetus to closer integration comes from Brussels rather than from below. Accordingly, the easing of controls was an inter-governmental initiative among individual member states until it was adopted into the EU's legal and institutional framework under the 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam. However, the steady expansion of the internal borderless domain has necessitated deeper cooperation among states to combat organised crime, trafficking in drugs, and illegal migration and to enforce the counter-terror strategy effectively. Paradoxically, to the extent the member states are anxious to retain national jurisdiction over such highly sensitive areas, the scope for cross-border cooperation is varied and generally limited. The decision of Ireland and the United Kingdom to keep out of the most prominent feature of Schengen policy, the provision for a common visa, exemplifies the degree to which national reservations influence particular policies. A revision of this stance may not be a major priority for either country any time soon. But continued insularity from the general direction of progress in the EU is hard to imagine.


The first paragraph of “Schengen at 25” (Editorial, June 16, 2010) described Schengen to be a Belgian town. Schengen is a small wine-making village and commune in far south-eastern Luxembourg, near the point where the borders of Germany, France, and Luxembourg meet. The village became famous, on June 14, 1985, when the Schengen Agreement was signed.

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