A Life in a Year – 26th March, The Schengen Agreement and Travel Without Passports

Before 1914, it was possible to travel freely within Europe without a passport but the First World War meant more controls were required and after the war came to an end, the practice of issuing passports and performing routine passport controls at national frontiers remained and became a routine travelling chore in Europe until the creation of the Schengen Area in 1995.

The Schengen Agreement is a treaty signed on 14th June 1985 near the town of Schengen in Luxembourg, between five of the ten member states of the European Economic Community. It was supplemented by the Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement five years later and together these treaties created Europe’s borderless Schengen Area which operates as a single state for international travel with border controls for travelers travelling in and out of the area, but with no internal border controls.

The Schengen Agreement was implemented on March 26th 1995 and by 1997 all European Union member states except the United Kingdom and Ireland. New EU member states do not sign the Schengen Agreement but are bound to implement the Schengen rules as part of the pre-existing body of EU law which every new entrant is required to accept.

I am all in favour of anything that simplifies travel arrangements because crossing state borders can be both inconsistent and a chore.  I have not driven between countries often in Europe but I have passed effortlessly between Spain and Portugal, France and Germany and Belgium and France where crossing the border was marked only by a rather disappointing little road sign that completely failed to capture the significance of the moment.

Passing between Germany and Switzerland I found rather curious.  Leaving Germany by ferry at Freidrichshafen and crossing Lake Constance required a passport but driving back around the shore line of the lake there was no sign of any border control going from Switzerland into Austria and then back into Germany.

Driving between the Balkan countries that made up the former state of Yugoslavia shows what it must have been like in Europe before Schengen because this can be really inconvenient.  Driving south in Croatia there is an interesting diplomatic arrangement at the town of Neum which is the only seaside town in Bosnia and occupies about twenty kilometres of coastline that splits Croatia in two and which requires driving through border controls at both ends, which quite frankly is a bit of a pain in the arse for traffic travelling to and from Dubrovnik.  The Croatian solution is simple and they have begun construction of a three thousand metre long bridge that will cross to the Peljesac peninsular and solve the problem by bypassing Bosnia altogether.  Passing from Croatia to Montenegro and back again was a drawn out and tortuous process that required passport and vehicle document checks and a €10 environmental tax to boot but getting between Croatia and Bosnia on the road to Mostar was surprisingly swift and simple by comparison.

Crossing borders in the Balkans was irritating but the worst passport experience has to have been a train journey between Slovakia and Austria.Shortly out of Bratislava two men in military uniforms wandered through the train checking documents.  I naturally assumed that they were checking tickets so was surprised when they showed no interest in these whatsoever and demanded travel documents instead.  Holy Shit!  This simply hadn’t occurred to me, and just when I was thinking ‘we’re all in trouble now’ Micky, Sue and Christine produced their passports with a self-satisfied smugness, while Kim and I sat there in a state of extreme shock!

The policemen asked if we had any alternative forms of identification and Kim optimistically offered photographs of her children, perhaps hoping that a family resemblance might be acceptable to them.  This didn’t work of course and the options began to look bleak, at worst a concrete prison cell and some explaining to staff from the British Embassy and a solicitor, at best being dropped off at the next station in the middle of nowhere before the train crossed the border into Austria and having to find our own way back.

Luckily the men with guns seemed to find our embarrassing situation just as amusing as our traveling companions and on the basis that Micky was able to vouch for us and to confirm that we were neither refugees nor international terrorists they agreed that we could proceed with our journey.  They added a chilling warning however as they moved on; ‘Of course we cannot guarantee that the Austrian police will be so understanding on the way back’, which left us weighing up our overnight and return journey options.   Just to illustrate lack of consistency there were no passport controls on the way back so we needn’t have worried after all.

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