A vital and long-established European travel agreement, which greatly eases touring Europe for Australians, is under severe threat and may not survive.
The Schengen Agreement allows travel without internal border checks between 22 EU member countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. It grants visa-free travel around the “Schengen area” of Europe to Australian tourists planning to spend less than a total of 90 days there within a 180-day period.
The Schengen Agreement has worked over the years in the following manner: anybody admitted into any Schengen member country is considered to have been checked at the border and therefore to be safe to travel throughout the other Schengen area countries, without requiring additional paperwork.
That was the original concept – but times have changed.
The most severe migration crisis in Europe’s recent history is placing the Schengen Agreement under enormous pressure. Hundreds of thousands of people are walking or sailing into Europe without checks. For various reasons, modern Europe is unable, or unwilling, to stop or deport them.
Refugees from Middle Eastern wars and vast numbers of people who just feel they would be better off economically in Europe, are entering Europe without passports or papers of any sort. Many destroy their papers deliberately. They come predominantly from the Middle East, from sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, from Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The EU claims it has no plans to change Europe’s passport-free system of travel – but behind the scenes many member nations have serious misgivings. Southern Europe has major unemployment. Germany has called for measures to prevent migrants travelling unchecked through Europe. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel says the rulebook may have to be re-examined if police can’t provide sufficient security for legitimate travellers.
The Schengen zone is only as secure as its weakest border. As European countries grow increasingly worried about potential terrorists entering illegally, barriers are starting to go back up. If border controls and visa demands follow, Australian travellers will be affected.
Britain and Ireland, which opted out of the Schengen Agreement at its inception in the 1980s, don’t regret their decision.
The Schengen area consists of Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The attempted terrorist attack on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris in August has highlighted the issue. See: Europe train travel tightened after pax prevent massacre
Recent developments in Europe:
- Austria stops processing asylum claims in June after accepting 20,000 asylum seekers in five months. Last week, the bodies of some 70 illegal immigrants are found inside a poultry truck abandoned on an Austrian highway. Austria then imposes extra checks on vehicles entering from Hungary, currently causing massive traffic queues at the border.
- Britain and France pledge to cooperate as thousands of migrants who have entered Europe without papers mass in northern France demanding the right to settle in Britain. Few have any connection with Britain. Britain can refuse them entry because it did not sign the Schengen Agreement.
- The UN says 160,000 illegal immigrants have entered Greece since January, most from Syria. On some Greek islands they greatly outnumber the local population and violence has broken out. Greece deploys riot police on the island of Kos as tensions mount.
- The Islamic extremist arrested after attempting to massacre passengers on a French high-speed train is found to have drifted around various Schengen countries. Ayoub el-Khazani, 25, a Moroccan living in Spain, had been identified in February 2014 by the Spanish authorities, who alerted French intelligence services. But el-Khazani then spent up to seven months near Paris before spells in Brussels, Cologne and Vienna.
- Hundreds of people continue to drown in the Mediterranean trying to enter Europe. Bodies of migrants are found in trucks and shipping containers, abandoned by people smugglers.
- Amid rising fears about Muslim migration and its implications, Slovakia declares it will accept only Christian migrants if it’s compelled to take in Syrian refugees under a EU relocation plan.
- Thousands of illegal immigrants continue sailing into Italy. About 110,000 have made the crossing this year, mainly from Libya. Stopping them landing or turning them back is considered inhumane or politically incorrect.
- Macedonian police use stun grenades and tear gas in a bid to stop thousands of migrants forcing their way over the border to gain access to the Schengen zone. The police finally give up and the immigrants move towards Serbia, which doesn’t want them and is trying to move them straight into Hungary.
- Hungary, a member of the Schengen zone, builds razor-wire fences to keep out the illegal immigrants. It is building a bigger, permanent and more secure fence. Hungary has intercepted more than 140,000 refugees crossing from Serbia so far this year, including 10,000 last week. Thousands of angry migrants gather outside Budapest’s main train station, demanding to be allowed to board trains to Germany.
- French police close the border with Italy in June to stop the influx.
- Britain announces it will jail for up to six months any illegal immigrants found working in the country. Security is stepped up around the Channel tunnel.
- British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warns: “Europe can’t protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure, if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.”
Meanwhile, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continues to advise Australian visitors to Europe:
“It is important to get your passport stamped when entering the Schengen area. The absence of an entry stamp from the initial Schengen port of entry could result in a fine or create difficulties during subsequent encounters with local police or other authorities throughout the Schengen area. Some countries require you to register with local authorities within three working days of your arrival.”
All very well, but a lot of people entering from other countries are not bothering with anything like that.
Written by Peter Needham