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EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?
A French police officer checks a man's passport and identification papers at a border post on the French-Spanish border(Photo by IROZ GAIZKA / AFP)

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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CHRISTMAS

Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

From dazzling Christmas markets to succulent festive meals, December is one of the best months to visit Italy. So, here are some things that you should know if you’re planning on visiting.

Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

December in Italy is nothing short of magical.

Most cities across the boot light up with twinkling light displays and local life is energised by enchanting Christmas markets, which tend to turn even the most ordinary of urban landscapes into a cheerful wonderland. 

So, if you’re planning on (or, perhaps, just considering) travelling to Italy in December, here are some things that you should know prior to setting off.

No travel restrictions

People who travelled to Italy last December were required to show proof of Covid vaccination, recent recovery from the virus or a negative molecular (PCR) or antigen test result in order to enter the country.

The above mandate expired on May 31st, which means that travel to the bel paese for any reason, including tourism, is no longer tethered to any health requirements.

As for the requirement for arrivals to complete an EU digital passenger locator form (dPLF), that was also scrapped last May.

Face masks required in healthcare settings

The requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport lapsed on Friday, September 30th.

However, Italy’s new government has recently extended the requirement to wear face masks in all healthcare settings and care homes until the end of the year.

So, if you’re planning on paying a visit to a relative or friend who’s currently staying in one of the above structures, you’ll have to wear a mask. 

Anyone refusing to comply with face mask rules can still face fines ranging from a minimum of €400 to a maximum of €1000.

Current quarantine rules 

Italy still requires anyone who tests positive for coronavirus while in the country to self-isolate, with the minimum isolation period currently standing at five days.

In order to exit quarantine, the infected person must be symptomless for at least two days, and must test negative to a molecular (PCR) or rapid antigen test at the end of that period.

Testing should be carried out at a registered pharmacy or testing centre as the results of home tests are not seen as valid for this purpose.

Should the patient continue to test positive, they must remain in isolation until they get a negative test result. However, the maximum length of the self-isolation period has now been cut to 14 days, down from 21.

National strike on December 2nd

After months riddled with nation-wide demonstrations, travel to, from and across Italy will continue to be disrupted by strikes during the last month of 2022. 

The demonstration that’s currently expected to create the greatest amount of disruption will take place on Friday, December 2nd and it’ll be a 24-hour national strike affecting airline and rail travel as well as local public transport lines.

Staff from Spanish airline Vueling and public transport companies in Udine, Trieste, La Spezia, Naples, Foggia and Bari have already announced that they will take part in the strike.  

At the time of writing, it isn’t yet clear if essential services will be guaranteed and, if so, which ones and at what times.

As always, The Local will keep you abreast of all the latest developments.

Local public holidays 

Italy has three public holidays in December. Those are:

  • December 8th – Feast of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25th – Christmas Day
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day in English-speaking countries)

As you might have already realised, December 24th (Christmas Eve) and December 31st (New Year’s Eve) are not official public holidays in Italy. However, most local companies do give their staff both days off as a gesture of goodwill. 

It’s worth noting that on all of the above-mentioned days the country will pretty much collectively stop, with all public offices and nearly all shops remaining shut. 

Even transport services are usually very limited on the days in question, so, if you’re planning to visit around those dates, make sure to make all the necessary arrangements well in advance.

Christmas markets 

This Christmas looks set to be Italy’s first in two years without any Covid restrictions.

This means that the country’s traditional Christmas markets, a number of which were cancelled last year due to safety concerns, should be up and running again this December.

Italy’s most popular markets are located in Trentino-Alto Adige, the northern region bordering Switzerland and Austria – Bruneck, Bolzano and Brixen are all well known for their gleeful stalls.

That said, the northern mountain cities don’t claim complete ownership of Italy’s Christmas markets, as Rome, Perugia and Gubbio also have some of the best set-ups in the entire peninsula.

Galleries and museums’ special openings 

Most galleries and museums in the country tend to have special opening hours during the festive season, which means that you might be able to admire artworks by some of the most famous Italian painters and sculptors even on public holidays and as late as 10pm on some days.

For instance, in Venice, Palazzo Ducale, Museo Correr and Murano’s Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) will be open every day (public holidays included) in December, with their doors remaining open to visitors until 9pm on some dates.

As always, you’re advised to check the websites of the museums you’re interested in visiting to know what they’ll offer visitors in December.

Christmas’ culinary wealth 

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

The quality of Italy’s cuisine is no secret, but the country dishes out some of the best examples of its long culinary tradition over the Christmas holidays.

While the evening meal on Christmas Eve (known as ‘La Vigilia’) tends to be quite frugal, the Christmas Day meal is anything but.

A pasta dish (tortellini, lasagne or baked pasta) is followed by a veal-, ox- or poultry-based second course accompanied by a variety of vegetables.

Finally, the festive meal is finished off with a scrumptious slice (more like, three or four for some) slice of panettone or pandoro.

Prosecco or another variety of sparkling wine is generally used to wash down all of the above.

Extravagant New Year celebrations

READ ALSO: Red pants, smashed plates and bingo: Six reasons Italian New Year is awesome

If you’ve never spent New Year’s Eve in Italy, you might be in for a surprise.

The Italians have a reputation for being a superstitious bunch, and some of their New Year customs can truly startle the uninitiated foreigner. 

Apart from ladies wearing red underwear to fend off evil spirits and people eating lentils by the bucketload to bring wealth and prosperity to their families, some residents, especially in the south, throw crockery out of their windows to show that they’re ready for a new start in the new year.

An alternative tradition – which, to be fair, seems to be slightly more friendly towards passers-by – is crashing pots and pans together right by the front door to frighten away evil spirits.

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