Law and society blog

ELU-project "Schengen Area for Dummies"

Third-year law students from the Helsinki campus participated in the ELU-project in Finland for the first time and therefore wanted to share their project with all of the fellow students in Estonia.

elu project

What is ELU?

LIFE as Learning in Interdisciplinary Focused Environment is a study course focused on project- and problem-based learning, where students from different study areas collaborate with academics and partners from outside university to carry out projects with interdisciplinary problems. Project-based learning is the most suitable method for solving interdisciplinary problems. Learning happens in the context of activities. Students who have joined a LIFE project need to combine the knowledge from different fields, which requires finding time to get together, agreeing on goals and activities and determining a realistic timeframe.


Tere! Hi! Moikka!

We chose our topic to be about the Schengen area. One of our group members, Laura, works closely with this subject and when we spoke about it in the group we realized that the rest of us aren’t too familiar with the subject. How about you, do you know what the Schengen area is and how it differs from the European Union? Did you know that all Schengen states aren’t EU member states?

What could be a better project than one which would enable us to learn more and help us teach others! So we started to plan how we would achieve the project. We combined our resources and knowledge, we ended up with the idea that we would divide this project into two parts. We were curious what Finnish elementary school students know or think about the subject and so we had two of our group members, Vanja and Tuomas, visit two different schools to talk about the Schengen area with the children. The students were third and sixth graders. The rest of the group started to dive into the subject more deeply.

Before we bore you with the details, let’s dive in!

What is Schengen?

The freedom of movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the European Union to its citizens. The right is established in Title 1 Article 3 Paragraph 2 of the Treaty on the European Union: “The Union shall offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers, in which the free movement of persons is ensured in conjunction with the appropriate measures with respect to external border controls, asylum, immigration and the prevention and combating of crime.”

The abolishment of borders has been the objective of EU countries since the 1950s and the Schengen agreement is the instrument to further enhance the freedom of movement. The Schengen area following from the agreement, represents the territory of 26 countries where the free movement of persons is guaranteed. The inner borders are abolished while the external border controls are tightened.
A first step towards a common external border control policy was taken on 14 June 1985, when five of the then ten Member States of the European Economic Community signed an international agreement, the so-called Schengen Agreement, in the Luxembourg border town of Schengen. As more EU member states signed the Schengen Agreement, consensus was reached on absorbing it into the procedures of the EU. The Agreement and its related conventions were incorporated into the mainstream of European Union law by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997, which came into effect in 1999. A consequence of the Agreement being part of European law is that any amendment or regulation is made within its processes, in which the non-EU members are not participants.

Misconceptions of the Schengen

“When I am crossing the European borders without my passport, I am able to settle down and work wherever in Europe I want!” (A refugee entering to Europe for asylum)
•    If you submit an asylum application within a certain country, you are unable to travel around before your asylum decision

“I am applying a Schengen visa from where I am getting it in the fastest way and then I can travel around Europe unlimitedly!” (A third-country national travelling to Schengen area with a visa)
•    If you are planning to speed up your application process by applying Schengen visa from the country with no queues - reconsider! You should apply your visa from the country where you are planning to spend the most of your time.

“If there is no border checks, the security and safety of Europe is compromised. A right for free movement increases the terrorism and serious crimes in the Europe.” (Recent political debates after the terrorism attacks in the Europe)
•    As terrorism is always a horrific issue, need to keep in mind that in the recent attacks it has not been caused by the actions of the third-country nationals. The attackers have been radicalised EU citizens. In addition, the European Union is introducing new tools to fight against terrorism.

“How Brexit is going to affect on Schengen area? Is it the end for the era of free movement?”
•    The UK has never been part of the Schengen area, it has enjoyed the opt-out possibility. Generally, it is only affecting on the UK citizens as they are missing the rights of European citizen and becoming a third-country nationals when entering, working or living in the Europe.

If you still feel overwhelmed with the subject you might want to try a more comprehensive learning method like drawing, as did the children.

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Internal and external border checks in European Union and the Schengen area. Do you know what the purpose of these border checks are? Why there is and why there aren’t? Let us tell you a bit about those!

All the EU country citizen shall have a official travel document as traveling inside the EU. Those EU citizen who are not also involved in the Schengen should go through the border control when they are entering to another country.

What about Schengen countries? Are there also passport checks in the border?

The Schengen countries have reduced the internal border checks between the Schengen countries. The Schengen Border Code (SBC) is the foundational Code regulating the internal and external border checks in the Schengen area. The SBC regulates the entry requirements for third country citizens and the duration of stays for these third country citizens in the Schengen area. Once a third country citizen has gained the access to the Schengen area she or he may freely travel inside the Schengen.

Schengen Member States have reduced their internal border control. A citizen of Schengen Member State may freely travel inside the Schengen area without being subject to passport checks. But you still need to have a passport or identification if you are asked to show it.

“I do not need a passport, because my dad is a policeman” (a boy from third grade)

Did you know that one Schengen Member State may reintroduce its border controls? For example, sport events in one Member State allows this Member State to reintroduce its border control. This reintroduction is limited in duration. This must be done so that the Commission and the other Member States are notified at least 4 weeks beforehand.

And to make it even more interesting, immediate actions may be taken by one Schengen Member States. This means that a Member State may reintroduce border control for ten days without prior notification of other Member States. So, it is crucial to have a passport with you all time.

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    (Two border checks inside ONE SINGLE country, a group work from third graders)

To be or not to be apart of the schengen area?

It must be noted that not all countries of Europe or the European Union are signature states of the Schengen area. Why, you ask? Not all countries want to be fully part of the Schengen area and other countries have not yet fulfilled the requirements for the application of the Schengen acquis. To best try to demonstrate the differences between non-Schengen countries we will give a short presentation of Romania’s situation as well as the situation of the United Kingdom.

Romania, together with Cyprus, Bulgaria and Croatia, is one of the four EU countries that is seeking to join but for now still remains a non-Schengen country. In 2017 Romania was supposed to join the Schengen area but it was postponed because Romania still had to take additional efforts, more precisely, 12 new instructions before coming part of the European visa-free zone. The instruction mostly concerned securing more independence for the courts, combating cross-border crimes and corruption.

To further elaborate the situation of Romania, it is important to understand the amount of corruption in their country. Both active and passive bribery are criminalized in Romania but the government does not enforce these anti-corruption laws. According to the Romania Corruption Report, corruption has a large effect on almost all fields:
•    In the case of public services, companies report that bribes and irregular payments are often exchanged in return for obtaining public utilities.
•    Land administration, one-third of the surveyed citizens believe that bribery and abuse of office are widespread among officials issuing building permits.
•    It is believed that Romanian tax authorities are also affected by bribery and abuse.
•    In theory there is freedom of press but in reality many media outlets have been taken over by wealthy businessmen to advance their own political and economical agendas.
Romania has many border countries (Hungary, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria and Serbia) and in 2017 there were 26 million border cross-overs. The risk is that a country with wide-spread corruption will frustrate the bloc’s effective border management.

The United Kingdom along with Ireland, are countries which maintain opt-outs. They are members of the European Union but have decided not to be part of Schengen area. As a regular EU citizen, you might notice the difference when you are travelling to the UK or Stockholm. Before you are allowed to enter to the UK, you have to go through the border control. There is the internal border check on its place, instead of going to Stockholm where you can enter to the country similarly if you would travel within your own home country. It means that neither of the UK or Ireland have abolished the internal border checks  and preferred to opt-out from the Schengen. That is fine, each country is its own, so others respect their decision. What would you say if we tell you that despite of the opt-out, the UK and Ireland are still enjoying the benefits of Schengen? Well, yes they do so. They cooperate in some aspects of Schengen, namely police and judicial cooperation, fighting against drugs and using the Schengen Information System (SIS). The SIS is an information system that allows national border control and judicial authorities to obtain information on persons or objects. The UK and Ireland are using the system within their borders although they have declined to be part of abolishing the internal border checks.

What do you think if you compare these countries and the newer EU countries who would willingly to join the Schengen by respecting the Schengen acquis fully? Is someone picking the cherries on the top of the cake? As the core of our topic is to make our readers to think over, we would like to raise the question of the equality between the newer EU countries and the older ones. It seems that others are expected to behave like a model student of European Union in order to enjoy all benefits. At the same time there is countries who are playing with their own rules. Consequently, it has stressed the question that the partial participation of these member states should not reduce the consistency of the acquis as a whole. Elsewhere, the other member states have adopted the acquis fully as a basis of the Schengen cooperation.

During the past years, there has been several public debates about the future of Schengen area. Why? Why some of the Europeans are willing to let go one of the founding principle of Schengen area – the freedom of movement? According to the public debates, the recent happenings such as the refugee crisis and terrorism attacks in the Schengen countries have increased the discussion about “Schengen crisis”. After these unfortunate happenings, some of the Member States have altered the level of free movement by reinstated internal border controls. Well, if you have seen the pictures from the Hungarian border or heard the numbers of the refugees entering to Germany, we need to admit that cannot blame on those countries to doing so. Meanwhile, some political parties are taking the benefits of the situation by on-going public discussion about the endangered security of the Europeans. In addition, the Brexit has given its own boost to the discussion - is the Schengen area already history if even the UK is decided to leave. Well, you have probably learned already by now that the UK has enjoyed the opt-out of Schengen. Sorry to say, but the Brexit does not affect to Schengen area in any way.

Despite the public discussion and some unpleasant headlines – you may ask what is actually going on with Schengen. How Schengen will recover from the setbacks? Is there a future for the free movement? We are happy to enlighten that as a European citizen, you are still able to enjoy your benefits of free movement in the future. In a decision-maker level, there is a will to remain Schengen area as a practical and symbolic achievement of European integration. Consequently, the Commission adopted a legislative proposal called Smart Borders in 2016. The proposal includes a regulation for establishing a new technical database called the Entry-Exit System (EES) and needed technical changes for the EES. The European Parliament adopted the Commission’s proposal in late 2017 and the EES will be in operational use in 2020. What is the purpose of this regulation, you may ask. As you may have learned so far, the core idea of Schengen does not follow the principle that we are building up fences to our external borders or the European border guards are guarding in the border area and blocking third-country nationals entering to the Schengen area. Oh well, that is not the founding principle of Schengen. Actually, the borders are supervised by the throughout border checks of the third country nationals. The tools for that are the technical solutions such as different databases. With the EES, the border checks will be harmonized and enabled in an European-wide level as so far, it has been done in a national level.

What is the Entry-Exit System? Basically, it is a database which records the name, type of travel document, biometric data (such as face picture and fingerprints) and most importantly, the time and place of entry and exit of an third country national entering the Schengen area. Its core principle is to modernize the external border management by improving the quality and efficiency of border controls and the detection of document and identity fraud. You may ask, why it is necessary? To what challenges it answers?

Firstly, it improves the quality of border checks for third country nationals.  It substitutes slow and unreliable manual stamping of passports by providing precise information regarding the third country national such as information about the earlier refusals of entry. Secondly, it offers reliable information of the overstayers.  The overstayer means that a person has legally entered to European Union but who has stayed after their entitlement to do so has expired. Normally the overstayers are staying in the Europe and working illegally as for a reason or another they have not been entitled for a working visa. As the EES saves a person’s biometric data, it also supports the identification of irregular immigrants who have possibly trying to counterfeit the visa requirements and aiming at overstaying in the Schengen area. Thirdly, the EES supports to reinforce internal security and the fight against terrorism and serious crime. For now, you have probably gained an understanding that although Schengen area prefers to keep on its core principles such as free movement; it does not lay back on regarding to the fight against terrorism or serious crimes. Currently, if you are a subject of serious crime (such as human trafficking), a person may enter to the Europe with the accurate travel documents. However, when the person has entered into the area, the smuggler probably collects the passport or in the worst case, destroys it. If a person is not enrolled in any database with the biometric data, it can be very difficult for the law enforcement authority to identify if the person is suspected or a victim of a crime. With the EES database, the European law enforcement authorities are able to identify the terrorists, criminals, and subjects of serious crimes in a reliable way and track the record of travel histories of third country nationals suspected or subjected to the criminal activity.

So what do you think? As an European citizen would you still prefer to enjoy your free movement in the future?

Are you smarter than the kids?
-You can decide after you’ve read this post.

We chose to have a lecture about our topic for 9  and 12 years old kids. Vanja has worked in the elementary school for three years and based on her experience we planned a simple lesson including tasks for the kids.

9 year old kids:

We started the lesson with a question to get the kids to participate from the beginning  “What do you have to do when you travel to another country?” the kids answered for example clothes, suitcases and sunscreen. We explained that you can travel to another country with only one pair of socks and no sunscreen but you need something else before you can start watching a movie at the airplane. Then the kids understood what we were after. Instead of clothes and sunscreen they came up with a passport. We started to elaborate from the passport and after a while we were at the security check. The kids asked why they need to go through a security check and one boy said that he does not need go through it, because his dad is a policeman. We explained that we have security checks in every country because of the safety on the airplane.

The next question was “What if you travel to Sweden, do you need to have a passport?” this question divided  the class into two groups. Before answering the question we explained to the kids that Sweden and Finland are a part of the Super area. We changed the Schengen name to “Super area” so that it would be easier for the kids to understand and to make it more interesting. We explained that you do not need a passport or go through security checks if your country and your destination country are a part of the super area.

The third question was that “Do you think it is unfair that some countries are a member of the super area?” The kids thought that it is unfair and that everyone should have the same rights. They also thought that it is easier without passport controls, because according to the kids it takes a lot of time to queue to the passport controls.

We gave them the task to create in groups dream countries. They needed to come up with a name, flag, country borders and rules. The idea was that the kids needed to think about everything we had talked about and create rules that they think it is important. For example, does your country have passport controls, security checks, are they a member state of EU, what about the super area (Schengen)?.
After answering these questions the groups presented their countries for the class.

12 year old kids:

With the 12-year-old kids we had a little bit different approach, because we presumed that they would have more knowledge about EU, and at least it was easier for them to understand the topic. Apparently they knew a lot. What amazed us was that they were really familiar with the whole concept and they kept amazing us with their knowledge as we kept talking. We even ran out of time because they were so enthusiastic. The strangest thing was, that they did not bring up the immigration issues at all, but they seemed to be aware of it.

We started with the first question “How can you envision EU in your everyday life?” just to get some idea, how familiar kids are with the topic. From this point onwards they really showed what they knew. Immediately a couple of hands rose and they talked about money and euro as a currency of EU. We were going to return to this question later so we did not use much time for this at this point.

The next basic step was to introduce them with the EU and how it works. We had a long conversation about this topic. The kids were really interested to know how decisions are made, what kind of decisions can be made and how they affect the whole EU. We discussed how EU evolved after the second world war and grew up to be what it is today. They had a good idea what it means to have free movement of people and supplies. I demonstrated how regulations and directives work so they understood how regulation or directive could affect their life. We got few good laughs with the legendary now former “cucumber directive”. Idea was to point out that some directives might even sound like a little bit funny. They even asked about monetary policy and how currency is changed and what it takes if EU wants to change its currency from euro to something else.

Then we got to Schengen or “super area” and discuss “What are benefits?” and “Why some are part of Schengen and some are not? And why some are a part of EU and some are not?” From very beginning it was clear that they did not need special words for Schengen. This part seemed to be really interesting as we talked a lot about the motives of different countries and why they are not part of EU or Schengen. Brexit was naturally one good topic and also balkan area and Turkey and why they are not even part of EU or not even applying yet.

Then we asked the same question again “How can you envision EU in your everyday life?” They nailed it as they pretty much followed what we discussed. I had asked couple times whether they were still following and it genuinely seemed they were following really well.

The last task we gave to them was to create dream country with set of own rules and then to present countries. Sadly we ran out of time and we did not have time to go through the answers, but still we had time to do this part so that they some idea of decision making and there rules that are actually really good. One might even learn something from them.

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Country: ELONIA
RuLES: We do not belong to EU and not to the Schengen area -–>  Because our country is so rich

Text authors are Tiina Kemppainen, Tuomas Riikonen, Jasmin Linke, Laura Tarkkanen, Vanja-Sofi Lehvonen, Caroliina Erwe-Kulmala and Emma Bendacha, Helsinki campus Law programme students.