The EU justice and interior ministers on 8 November cleared the way for the enlargement of the Schengen area to include nine of the new eastern member states, making passport-free travel to and from these countries a reality by December.
Internal land and sea border checks will be abolished as of December 2007, while restrictions on air borders will be lifted by March 2008, according to the decision taken at the latest Council meeting in Brussels.
The decision extends the passport-free travel system to Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Thus far, 13 EU member states (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden) and two non-EU countries (Norway and Iceland) have been participating fully in the Schengen acquis.
The United Kingdom and Ireland only participate in the agreement in the area of police and judicial cooperation, and thus still uphold their border controls.
Ministers from the old member states had voiced reservations regarding the sufficient control of land and air borders between the new Schengen countries and non-EU states, as well as the issue of data protection, but gave the green light after having reassessed the conditions in the EU’s eastern states.
German interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble praised the “symbolic effect for the new EU member states, which do not live behind the Iron Curtain anymore”.
By entering the Schengen acquis, the new members will also introduce the Schengen Information System (SIS), a sophisticated database which national border-control and other customs and police control authorities can use to exchange information on certain categories of persons and property, and give mutual operational assistance. The system was set up to offset the risk of a security deficit connected with the abolition of internal borders.
With Schengen entering into force, conditions for entering the EU and crossing external borders, as well as policy on issuing visas, have been harmonised. The Schengen system allows citizens of participating states to move freely within the area and foreigners to travel throughout the zone on a single visa.
Meanwhile, Switzerland signed an association agreement with the EU, which has not entered into force yet. It is expected to become a full Schengen member, together with Liechtenstein, at the end of 2008.
In 2009, Cyprus may fully join the Schengen acquis, whereas Bulgaria and Romania are not expected to fully participate before 2011.