Towards a stronger and more resilient Schengen area: Questions and Answers

(Source: European Commission)

Why do we need a Strategy for the Schengen area now? 

The Schengen area is the largest free travel area in the world and one of the main achievements of the European Union. While its foundations have proven solid, recent crises and challenges have put Schengen to the test. The 2015 refugee crisis exposed shortcomings in the Union’s management of the external borders and of migration, leading to internal border controls being reintroduced in a number of Member States. Internal border controls were also reintroduced in response to terrorist threats. More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has placed major strain on the Schengen area, with more Member States reintroducing internal border controls, at times jeopardising the proper functioning of the internal market, disrupting supply chains within the EU as well as the movement of people, especially those living and working in border regions. Improvements are needed to make sure Schengen can face current and future challenges and that all those living in Europe can continue reaping the benefits of unfettered travel. While the Commission made efforts to mitigate the impact of internal border controls, enhance security, and improve the management of the EU’s external borders, a new way forward that ensures the security and mobility of all those living in Europe is needed, also to facilitate the EU’s economic recovery after the pandemic.

What benefits does the Schengen area bring to those living, travelling and doing business in Europe?

The Schengen area allows EU citizens and residents to live, work and travel in another EU country without going through controls at internal borders. Almost 1.7 million people reside in one Schengen country while working in another and every day around 3.5 million people cross internal borders. Europeans make an estimated 1.25 billion journeys within the Schengen area every year, which also greatly benefits the tourism sector. The Schengen area brings significant economic benefits to its participating states. Since its establishment, intra-European trade has increased over time, facilitating the growth of European businesses. As we saw during the coronavirus pandemic, delays at internal borders had a substantial impact on European businesses, on the provision of goods and services, as well as on the mobility of persons, including cross-border workers and those traveling to reunite with friends and families.

What are the main actions under the Strategy?

The Strategy outlines key actions to sustain and compensate for the absence of border controls within Schengen and enhance its resilience to future challenges. This includes:

  • Ensuring effective and modern management of the EU’s external borders;
  • Reinforcing the Schengen area internally;
  • Improving governance to foster trust between Member States and better preparedness to crises.

The Strategy also calls for completing the enlargement of the Schengen area, so that Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Cyprus can fully benefit from Schengen.

How will the management of the EU external borders become more modern and effective?

The EU’s external borders are common borders and should be managed as a shared responsibility.

The European Border and Coast Guard standing corps – currently being rolled out – is supporting Member States.

By 2023, information systems for border and migration management as well as law enforcement purposes should become interoperable, giving border guards the information they need to know who is crossing the EU’s borders, closing remaining gaps. The Entry/Exit System will replace the manual stamping of passports and register the entry and exit of non-EU nationals, playing a key role in modernising border management. It will help improve the quality and efficiency of controls and the detection of document and identity fraud. The system is being tested until the end of 2021, with a view to making it fully operational as of the second quarter of 2022. The European Travel Information and Authorisation System, intended to identify security or irregular migration risks that may be posed by visa-exempt visitors before they reach the EU borders, will enter into operation at the end of 2022. The Schengen Information System and the Visa Information System are also being upgraded.

The Strategy will ensure that national strategies on border management are fully aligned with EU goals, thanks to a multiannual strategic policy cycle for integrated border management.

The Commission will propose to make the visa application procedure as well as travel documents digital, saving travellers and Member States time and money.

Security research also contributes to a modern and effective management of the EU’s external borders. From 2007 to 2020, the EU invested nearly €3 billion in security research, and will keep supporting the development of new technologies and capabilities in the coming years, for instance to facilitate the crossing of external borders by legitimate travellers and develop fraud-resistant documents.

How will you end temporary controls at internal borders in the Schengen area?

The freedom to move around Europe without going through border checks is not a luxury. It is an essential freedom, as well as a daily necessity for all those living in border regions. The coronavirus pandemic has shown the major disruptions resulting from uncoordinated restrictions at internal borders.

The Commission will launch a close political and technical dialogue with the Member States concerned to address long-lasting reintroductions of controls at internal borders, with the objective of assessing the information available, better understanding the situation and identifying measures that could be taken to lift internal border checks. The Commission will take action should such controls prove disproportionate.

The Commission will also continue to assess the reintroduction of internal border controls on grounds related to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that such controls are lifted as soon as possible.

To foster cooperation and rebuild trust, last year the Commission created a dedicated Schengen Forum gathering Members of the European Parliament and Home Affairs Ministers. Based on these exchanges as well as on future consultations the Commission will continue to have with the European Parliament and with Member States, later this year the Commission will present a proposal to revise the Schengen Borders Code. It would introduce the necessary safeguards so that reintroducing internal border checks remains a measure of last resort and ensure close coordination. In this way, the Commission and the Member States would be able to have an overview of the circumstances giving rise to the need for reintroduced border controls. Moreover, the proposal will aim to put in place more coordination at Union level for Schengen-wide threats, learning also the lessons from the coronavirus crisis.

The improvements to the Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism proposed today will also strengthen confidence in the good implementation of the Schengen rules, helping to restore trust between Member States.

In addition, the Strategy also provides for stronger internal measures in police cooperation, security and migration, all important to compensate for the absence of controls at internal borders. To further improve information exchange and support law enforcement cooperation, the Commission will for instance propose an EU Police Cooperation Code and an upgrade of the ‘Prüm’ framework for exchanging information on DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration.

A range of tools and measures are also already available for efficient law enforcement cooperation across borders, including joint patrols, joint investigation teams and cross-border hot pursuits, generally considered more effective to address serious threats to internal security and public policy.

The Commission will initiate specific consultations to explore the use of technologies as alternative to border controls. Technologies could indeed help prevent, detect and fight potential security threats across the EU and achieve similar objectives to the temporary physical border checks, while being less costly.

What will be the aim of the upcoming revision of the Schengen Borders Code?

The upcoming revision of the Schengen Borders Code would aim to boost Schengen’s resilience to serious threats, including threats to public health, by ensuring close coordination and introducing the necessary safeguards so that reintroducing internal border checks remains a measure of last resort. In this way, the Commission and the Member States would be able to have an overview of the circumstances giving rise to the need for reintroduced border controls.

The proposal would also aim to address the coordination at EU level of restrictions on travel into the EU, drawing on the experience of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, to avoid a fragmented response by Member States.

The Commission will consult the European Parliament, the Council and the relevant stakeholders in the preparation of this proposal.

What tools will be in place to anticipate, prepare and react to crises?

To be better prepared for future crises, the Commission will codify the guidelines and recommendations developed during the coronavirus pandemic in the Practical Handbook for Border Guards, which should become the point of reference for border guards in crises.

The Commission will also present by the end of the year a contingency plan allowing for the reactivation of the successful Green Lanes system for uninterrupted freight traffic in case of future crises. The plan will draw lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and address the needs of European freight and passenger transport in the event of a pandemic.

The revision of the Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism proposed today will help ensure that any deficiencies in the implementation of the Schengen rules are identified and remedied in time, with an expedited procedure in case of significant deficiencies that could put Schengen as a whole at risk.

The Commission Recommendation on an EU Migration Preparedness and Crisis Blueprint under the New Pact of Migration and Asylum, which is now being implemented, will also help ensure preparedness for and response to difficult migratory situations that could affect the Union.

Finally, as announced in the Communication on Updating the 2020 New Industrial Strategy, the Commission will propose  a Single Market Emergency Instrument, which will provide a structural solution to ensure the free movement of persons, goods and services in case of future crises.

How will the Strategy improve the governance of the Schengen area and restore trust in the good functioning of the Schengen area?

The Commission will convene regular Schengen Forums to foster political dialogue on addressing common challenges, based on annual reports on the State of Schengen. These reports will summarise the situation as regards the absence of internal border controls, the results of Schengen evaluations, and the state of implementation of recommendations issued after evaluations. The Commission will include a ‘State of Schengen Scoreboard’ in these reports providing an overview of the implementation of the Schengen rules and helping to better support Member States in addressing any challenges.

To restore trust among Member States in the correct implementation of the Schengen rules, the Commission is also presenting today a legislative proposal reforming the Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism. The revised mechanism will ensure that any deficiencies in the implementation of the Schengen rules are identified and remedied quickly.

Will more countries join the Schengen area?

The Strategy calls upon the Council to decide on lifting controls for Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, and integrate them into the Schengen area. Bulgaria and Romania successfully completed the required evaluation in 2010 and 2011.

As regards Croatia, the Commission confirmed in October 2019 that Croatia had taken the measures needed to ensure that the conditions for the application of the Schengen acquis are met. This was reconfirmed following an additional visit to Croatia’s external borders.

A more inclusive Schengen area will increase security for the EU as a whole while also fulfilling these countries’ legitimate expectation and legal obligation to join Schengen. It will equally contribute to reinforcing mutual trust. It is now up to the Council to take the necessary steps for these Member States to become part of Schengen.

The same will apply for Cyprus once it has completed the required evaluation.

While not part of the Schengen area, Ireland has access to the Schengen Information System since March 2021, which contributes to increased security throughout the EU.

Revision of the Schengen Evaluation and Monitoring Mechanism

What is the Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism?

The Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism is a peer-to-peer review mechanism aimed at verifying that Member States correctly implement the Schengen rules. Under the mechanism, teams of trained experts from the Commission and the Member States evaluate Member States’ implementation of the Schengen rules via announced and unannounced visits. All Member States are currently evaluated every 5 years. Following this analysis and the findings of the on-site visit, the experts prepare a report under the coordination of the Commission. A range of recommendations may then be sent to the EU country evaluated. The evaluated Member State has to implement these recommendations and report back.

Why revise the mechanism?

While the Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism has led to substantial improvements in the implementation of the Schengen rules, a recent report taking stock of the experience gained during the 2015-2019 evaluation programme showed that several shortcomings undermine the full potential of the mechanism. These include the excessive length of the evaluation process, the slow follow up on recommendations and the lack of strategic approach on the evaluations and political discussions on the state of Schengen. Issues related to the assessment of the respect for fundamental rights in the implementation of the Schengen rules were also not sufficiently integrated in the mechanism. The revision of the mechanism will help address these challenges.

What are the main changes proposed today?

The proposed changes include:

  • Making the mechanism more flexible and strategic: Thematic evaluations should be used more frequently to obtain a comparative picture of Member States’ practices, for instance when it comes to implementing significant legislative changes. The mechanism will be based on 7-year evaluation cycles, matching the duration of the Multiannual Financial Framework. In addition, unannounced evaluations would, as a general rule, not require any prior notification, allowing for better monitoring.
  • Fostering political dialogue on the results of evaluations: The results of Schengen evaluations will form part of the annual report on the State of Schengen, providing the basis for political discussion on the functioning of the Schengen area with both the European Parliament and Member States.
  • Significantly accelerating the evaluation process to identify and address shortcomings in time, with clear procedural deadlines and a fast-track procedure in case of significant deficiencies that could put Schengen as a whole at risk. The evaluation process will be shortened from 10-12 months to 4 months, and in the case of serious deficiencies to 2.5 months. The Commission would as a general rule adopt recommendations, while the Council would focus on the most politically relevant cases and the follow-up to deficiencies in case of lack of progress.
  • Strengthening the evaluation of the respect for fundamental rights by increasing the involvement of Fundamental Rights Agency and allowing unannounced evaluations, if there are indications of serious fundamental rights violations.
  • Closer cooperation with Frontex, eu-LISA and Europol, who can provide information, statistics and risk analyses feeding into the evaluations. Links will be established with other monitoring mechanisms such as vulnerability assessments by Frontex, the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (‘EMPACT’), and national mechanisms to gather an improved picture of the functioning of the Schengen area.

How will the new mechanism help better remedy serious deficiencies in the implementation of the Schengen rules?

The proposal provides for a fast-track procedure so that deficiencies identified are addressed promptly. To ensure that no time is lost when a serious deficiency is identified, Member States will be notified in advance and the Commission will immediately inform the Council and the European Parliament. The evaluated Member State will have to start remedying the deficiency immediately, before the adoption of the evaluation report, and will have to inform the Commission and Member States of the measures taken.

The proposal also provides for accelerated follow-up: the evaluation report and recommendations will have to be adopted within 2.5 months of the end of the evaluation to allow for immediate action. No later than one year after the evaluation, the Commission will carry out an additional visit to verify the implementation of remedial actions.

How will the new mechanism better assess the respect of fundamental rights?

The proposal increases the role of the Fundamental Rights Agency and its systematic involvement in evaluations, as well as the role of third parties such as ombudspersons, and authorities monitoring the respect of fundamental rights. The revised mechanism ensures an increased submission of risk analyses by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and strengthens the reference to fundamental rights when it comes to training. Evidence supplied by national monitoring mechanisms, ombudspersons, authorities monitoring the respect of fundamental rights, non-governmental and international organisations should also be taken into account when programming and designing evaluations.

For More Information

Press release: Towards a stronger and more resilient Schengen area

Strategy towards a fully functioning and resilient Schengen area

Proposal to revise the Schengen evaluation and monitoring mechanism + Annex (see also the impact assessment and its executive summary)

factpage explaining elements of the package

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