Europe’s Schengen Area—a group of 26 countries that have been in an open-borders agreement for a quarter of a century—has marked its 25th anniversary with border checks reinstated and movement restricted due to the outbreak of coronavirus.
The Schengen Area has closed its external borders to travelers from third countries. Only nationals and official residents of Schengen states, members of their families, diplomats, and certain other individuals with special circumstances may currently enter the region.
The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Governments around the globe have implemented travel restrictions in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Many have closed their borders entirely and implemented lockdowns of the countries.
The Schengen Area has been heavily affected. A number of its member countries are among the worst-hit nations in the world. Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and Switzerland all rank in the top 10 sovereign states by number of COVID-19 cases.
Not only are visitors from outside the Schengen Area temporarily barred from entering all of its constituent countries, but many of the member states have also reinstated their own borders, some of which have been closed to the majority of travelers.
This has created the unique situation that on Thursday, March 26—25 years since the creation of the Schengen Area—traveling around the open-borders region is nearly impossible for the majority of people.
Schengen Area Closed to Foreign Travelers for the First Time in History
On March 17, 2020, the European Commission (EC) ordered all Schengen countries to close their land, air, and sea borders to travelers from outside the Schengen Area.
This extends to holders of a Schengen Visa, which usually allows travelers to visit all 26 member countries. Currently, the borders are closed even to those with a valid visa.
This marks the first time in its 25-year history that the Schengen Area has been closed off to outsiders.
The only travelers permitted to enter the Schengen Area are the following:
- European Union (EU)/European Economic Area (EEA) citizens and members of their families.
- Third-country nationals who are official residents of an EU/EEA country (with a residence card, residence permit, or other proof of right of residence)
- Foreign nationals with a long-stay visa and/or a temporary residence permit
- Healthcare workers
- Border workers
- Individuals who work in goods transportation, if deemed necessary
- Personnel of international and humanitarian organizations
- Individuals who can provide compelling reasons to visit their families
- Transit passengers
- Asylum-seekers and individuals who are admitted for humanitarian reasons
Third-country nationals planning a trip to Europe should check visa requirements and current news before attempting to travel to one of the affected areas.
Schengen Area Open Borders Now Closed
The Schengen Area was created on March 26, 1995. Named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg, where the original Schengen Agreement was signed, the open borders region originally included only 10 European states. It has since expanded to include almost all EU member countries as well as the 4 European Free Trade Association (EFTA) member states.
The international borders between countries within the Schengen Area are usually open, meaning that travelers may cross them freely, with no passport checks.
Citizens and residents of the Schengen Area can come and go as they please.
Visitors from third countries, such as the USA, Canada, or Japan need only to pass through border control when they first enter the Schengen Area. After this, they may travel throughout the region.
Under normal circumstances, there are no border checks on travelers moving between member countries of the Schengen Area. However, under the Schengen Agreement, any state may temporarily reinstate border control at any or all of its frontiers.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 14 Schengen countries have notified the European Commission (EC) that they have reimposed their borders. Reports suggest that others have also done this without notifying the EC.
A number of Schengen countries have closed their borders entirely, including to citizens of fellow EU and EEA nations.
Italy, one of the countries most affected by COVID-19 in the world, was the first to close its borders to all non-essential travel. Spain, Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland are among those that have followed suit.
The foundation of the Schengen Area is that of free movement without border controls. With many borders no longer open, the Schengen Agreement is close to being suspended entirely. This would have a huge economic impact on Europe, with the rules of the free market and trade between EU countries being rewritten.
It is possible that travel regulations for Europe will change permanently as well.
However, once the coronavirus outbreak has been brought under control, it is expected that border policies will return to normal, free movement will resume, and third-country travelers with Schengen visas will be able to visit all 26 member states again.
Nationals of countries outside the Schengen Area are advised to keep up to date with global visa information and check travel news for updates as the situation develops.