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Free movement of people within the EU

20 January 2010
by Ina Dimireva -- last modified 21 January 2010

Free movement of people is a basic component of the single area which the EU has been building since its inception. It is acknowledged as a fundamental right for EU citizens. Although the principle of free movement was enshrined in the founding treaties, in the first place it did not extend to lifting physical borders but was mainly targeted at the working population until the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999, when the Schengen Convention of 1990 was integrated into the EU legal and institutional framework.


Today, over 400 million people live in the Schengen area. It covers 22 EU Member States plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania do not yet apply the Schengen acquis fully, which is why checks on persons are still carried out at the internal borders with those three countries. The United Kingdom and Ireland have decided not to take part in the abolition of internal border control and therefore apply only the provisions relating to police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.

Free movement following the abolition of internal border controls (Schengen cooperation)

The right to free movement was given a boost in 1985 when Germany, France and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) signed an intergovernmental agreement on gradually abolishing internal border checks, in the small Luxembourg border town of Schengen. The Schengen Agreement was followed in 1990 by the Schengen Convention, which finally came into force in 1995.

The Schengen Convention abolished controls at the internal borders between the signatories, harmonised controls at the external frontiers of the “Schengen area” and introduced a common policy on short-stay visas for third-country nationals and other accompanying measures like police and judicial cooperation. The Schengen signatories agreed that each country could reintroduce controls at their shared borders only temporarily and in specific, clearly defined circumstances.

The Schengen provisions were not intended to regulate the right to long-term residence and work, neither for EU citizens nor for third-country nationals.

A protocol attached to the Treaty of Amsterdam incorporated the developments made in the intergovernmental framework (“Schengen acquis”) into the legal and institutional framework of the EU. The Schengen acquis now forms part of the EU legislation and is divided between the first and third pillar instruments, with border and visa policy falling under the “first pillar” and, hence, under the scrutiny of the European Commission and (with some specific conditions) of the Court of Justice of the European Communities and also involving the European Parliament.

The harmonised entry conditions for third-country nationals and rules and operational instructions for carrying out checks at the EU’s external borders are defined in the Schengen Borders Code that replaced earlier provisions of the Schengen Convention and the common manual on external borders. The key documents regulating the issuing of Schengen visas are the Common Consular Instructions.

The Schengen cooperation has made travel easier not only for EU citizens, but also for non-EU nationals. Since the Schengen area was established, all travellers who enter the area lawfully can travel freely within it without being submitted to border checks (for up to three months within a six-month period). Non-EU travellers who would normally need 22 visas to visit all the Schengen Member States can now do this with a single visa . A residence permit issued by a Schengen State replaces the short-term visa normally required for nationals of countries subject to a visa requirement.

Maintaining Internal Security

Source: European Commission

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