Last updated: 04:44 PM ET, Mon November 16 2015

What Do Paris Attacks Mean for Border-Free Travel in the EU?

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 16, 2015

What Do Paris Attacks Mean for Border-Free Travel in the EU?

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The Schengen Area, established in 1985 and expanded over the years to include members of the EU (except for opt-outs Ireland and the UK), has a common visa policy. This basically allows for visa-free travel in the continental portions of the EU. Travelers coming from outside the area only have to go through an immigration checkpoint once. Once their passports are stamped, they can move around freely. 

A convenient setup for tourists and business travelers

The policy is an integral part of the EU. It allows for easy tourism and trade between countries. Even famously-neutral Switzerland, which has thus far resisted calls the join the EU, is part of the Schengen Area. 

The setup is ideal for tourists, who are free to travel through much of the continent without having to worry about varying visa requirements. There are no lengthy stops at borders like there were in Cold War times. People can pass through entire countries on a train or a bus without ever stopping. 

Challenging times for the border-free policy

Recent events have made some people question whether this kind of border-free travel will be possible in the future in Europe. The influx of migrants from places like Syria, North Africa and Central Asia has put some Schengen countries at odds. This summer, Hungary decided to fence off its border with non-EU Serbia in order to stop the flow of migrants. Germany and some of the other countries to the north were, at the same time, telling migrants that they were still welcome.  

After the Paris attacks, Hungary, known for its anti-immigration stance, was quick to point out that some of the suspected gunmen had passed through their country, concealing themselves amongst the civilian migrants who were simply trying to escape their war-torn homeland and find employment in refugee-friendly countries. 

Even countries like Austria and Slovenia, both Schengen members, have set up checkpoints on their common border. Citing security concerns, Sweden has recently announced that it will be adding checkpoints as well. That is a significant move for a country that has the largest immigrant population, per capita, in Europe. 

Slowing the flow in the name of security

The terrorist attacks in Paris over the weekend have added volume to the call to abandon Schengen and reestablish more secure borders between EU countries. Some countries like Belgium have started vehicle checks on the border. 

Even if borders remain open, some local authorities in the EU are saying that they will take matters into their own hands and increase security in their cities and towns even though their national borders remain open.

What does all this mean for travelers? 

In the short term, there will obviously be an increase in security. That is to be expected after a terrorist attack. The question is whether countries will make these checkpoints part of their ongoing border policy. That could mean any number of things, from trains or buses being stopped for a quick search at the border to passport checks at stations and airports. The EU is fighting to keep Schengen in place, so it is unlikely that tourists will need a new visa to enter certain countries in the EU. It is more likely that they will occasionally have to wait at the border for a security and travel document check. 

After Paris, however, there is a realistic scenario that could see EU countries closing their borders and withdrawing from Schengen if the continent cannot agree on a universal security and immigration policy that makes every member state happy.   

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