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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 9 December, 1998, 21:01 GMT
Background to Schengen Agreement
Schengen map
The free movement of people in Europe has been one of the main goals of the European Union ever since it was set up forty years ago. However, its realisation has been slow and it was only in 1985 that five countries - France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany - signed an agreement to end controls on their internal frontiers in the small Luxembourg town of Schengen.

This was not a formal European Union agreement; it was between the five governments and did not involve European institutions. It was only at the EU summit in Amsterdam in 1997 that it was decided to bring Schengen under the umbrella of the Union.

The Schengen agreement came into effect in 1995 - ten years after it was signed - when it was implemented by the five original members plus two new ones, Spain and Portugal. Preparing for further implementation is complicated because member countries have to have a common visa policy, provide for police and judicial cooperation, and link up with a centralised computer system that pools information about cross-border crime - in particular the smuggling of drugs and the arrival of illegal immigrants. The major condition for open frontiers within Schengen is effective controls on the external borders.

Worries, especially on the part of Germany, that Austria and Italy were not able to fulfil these conditions, prevented these two countries from implementing Schengen earlier, although both signed the agreement some time ago.

Austria has a common frontier with former communist countries in eastern and central Europe that runs for nearly 1,300 kilometres, while Italy has a long coastline that is difficult to police. Large numbers of would-be immigrants, mainly from the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, attempt to get into Europe illegally across these frontiers. The Germans have complained that the Austrian and Italian authorities have not done enough to stop them.

Before an agreement was reached in July, Austria was threatening to block the new EU Amsterdam Treaty if it continued to be excluded from Schengen. Austria said it had spent nearly seventeen million dollars on equipment and increased manpower to patrol its eastern borders. Germany has now agreed a start date of December 1st for the lifting of border controls, beginning with controls at airports, between Austria and other Schengen countries.

However, Austria and Italy have not been given the all-clear yet. A tripartite commission of experts is to keep their frontier controls under review from September and the three heads of government will meet again at the end of the year to see what progress has been made.

Chronology

1985 Five countries sign the Schengen Agreement.

1990 The Convention Applying the Schengen Agreement is signed. Italy joins Schengen.

1991 Spain and Portugal join Schengen.

1992 Greece joins Schengen.

1994 On December 22, the parties meet at Bonn and decide to apply the Convention as of March 26 1995.

1995 Schengen comes into force on March 26. Austria joins Schengen.

1997 Italy begins implementation on October 26. Austria implements Schengen on December 1.

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