Land borders in Europe. A dramatic story in three acts

Progress achieved in making European borders less onerous for travellers has long been seen as one of the most tangible successes of European integration. In recent months this progress has been been put into question, however, leading some to wonder whether the very basic ideas behind Schengen and various visa liberalisation agreements are likely to survive a rise in mistrust. This has serious implications; for citizens of Schengen member states, but also for all those Europeans who are still on the outside looking in, envious of the ease of travel that has been created in half of their continent, and wondering if the European border revolution of the last quarter century is already in retreat before it ever reaches them.

On 14 June 1985, the Schengen Agreement on the gradual abolition of checks at the common borders between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, was signed on board the cruise ship 'Princesse Marie-Astrid', moored at Schengen, Luxembourg. Photo: On 14 June 1985, the Schengen Agreement on the gradual abolition of checks at the common borders between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, was signed on board the cruise ship ‘Princesse Marie-Astrid’, moored at Schengen, Luxembourg. Photo:

Today most Europeans move more freely across their continent than at any time since modern borders and passports were first invented. In the rhetoric of many far right parties the vision of a borderless Europe has always, however, been less a dream than a nightmare. There is Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Popular Front, demanding that France “leave the Schengen treaty. It is obvious: massive anarchic and uncontrolled immigration is one of the breeding grounds of insecurity.” There is the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Karl Heinz Strache, calling for more national border controls to be put in place, “following the recent example of Denmark.” This is not a new position, of course: Strache, and others like him, also opposed all previous enlargements of the Schengen area, and indeed the European Union itself. It is only recently, however, that the wider debate appears to be moving in their direction. If even the Danes call for a reimposition of national border controls, why not French, Finns or Austrians as well?

Recent months have seen quarrels between Italy and France linked to refugees from North Africa; the blocking of the Ventimiglia frontier by France on 17 April; acrimonious debates on the accession to the Schengen treaty of Romania and Bulgaria, once again postponed; the announcement by a Danish government of plans to restore controls along Danish borders; and concern about the increase in asylum applications from Balkan countries, after these countries were granted visa free travel. Even EU foreign ministers sounded warnings about the looming collapse of Schengen. All of this took place against a background of growing anxieties about the future of the Euro and the European project itself.

And so questions were raised: is the project of a “Europe without borders” another expression of technocratic hubris, another idealistic vision thought up by over-enthusiastic jet-setting elites, not actually supported by the majority of citizens fearful of its unintended consequences? Or is the real issue diminishing trust among European elites, as the Polish interior minister put it recently in the context of debates about Romania and Bulgaria, which, he noted, had been promised to be accepted into Schengen once they met all requirements:

“Today, two member states made it impossible to make a decision on Schengen enlargement. This takes us to a sad conclusion about mutual confidence between member states … We’ve known since April that they have met the requirements. Today, the promise was broken.”

As the Economist put it in April:

“The euro zone and the Schengen area depend on trust: that each member will run sound public finances, and that each will control its borders. When trust breaks down, integration is in trouble.”

The Danish border with Germany The Danish border with Germany

When even Danes and French fear open borders with Germany or Italy, respectively, and when even Romania and Bulgaria, EU members since 2007, cannot rely on promises made to them solemnly by other member states: is it wise to expect any further bold steps towards freedom of movement from such a Union? Or does this deprive all those who do not yet enjoy freedom of movement in Europe of the hope that things will ever change?


Schengen as a never-ending crisis

And yet: sometimes even a seemingly obvious conclusion – “Schengen is in crisis because Europe is in crisis” – is still misleading. Schengen is not in fact facing an unprecedented crisis. It is highly unlikely to ever be dismantled and most likely to continue to expand.  It is also likely that this process will be challenged and hotly debated every step of the way. All of this reflects the way Schengen has actually developed for more than two decades: incrementally, slowly, focused on security concerns in the light of public anxieties, in a process shaped strongly by European ministries of interior.

Schengen was not perceived by those promoting it as a matter of prioritizing freedom over security, or of idealism trumping realism. It was always defined as serving (also) national interests.  Progress became possible when ways were found to demonstrate that more freedom could coincide with increased security for existing members. Progress was therefore slow or came to a halt when argument was made in purely abstract terms and not in terms of actual security concerns.

Arguably, Schengen was “in crisis” from the very moment it was created. As Ruben Zaiotti put it in an illuminating recent essay (The Beginning of the End? The Italo-French Row over Schengen and the Lessons of Past ‘Crises’ for the Future of Border Free Europe) “the current crisis’ patterns and dynamics are consistent with the trajectory that Schengen has followed in the past.” (for a video presentation Ruben made for a recent ESI event on this topic, please go here).

Looking back shows the patterns Ruben Zaiotti refers to. There is France, a founder and, together with Germany, inventor of the Schengen concept, having serious doubts about actually implementing the very protocol it co-drafted and which was ratified in 1993. Relying on article 2.2. of the Schengen Implementation Convention, French politicians declared throughout the 1990s that they would be forced to maintain control over land borders with Belgium and Luxembourg in the interest of national security. As Herve de Charette, French foreign minister, put it in September 1995: “If it seems, as it is the case, that our citizens security depends also on the border controls, it is understood that we have to keep them.”

There were debates about the “Schengen Flop” in 1994: as one report at the time noted:

“the entry into force of the Schengen Implementing Agreement has been postponed for the third time and sine die … squabbling among the member states following the announcement of the postponement indicates that political and commercial rivalries exacerbated by a lack of institutional and public control inherent to the Schengen process, are more likely to be at the root of the debacle. “

Schengen, a debacle before it had even begun to be put into place?!

This was followed by further debates in 1996, as France continued to hold out in its increasingly isolated skepticism. More than a decade after the Schengen declaration was signed in 1985 there were still French border guards checking travellers from Belgium!  There was also a serious risk in 1996 that Norway would not accept Schengen and that this would sink all Scandinavian participation in the project.

The reason France did eventually lift border controls with Belgium was not due to an infection with Euro-idealism or to the sudden absence of right-wing challenges. As the father of Marine Le Pen, Jean Marie Le Pen, put it in 1998, when he was riding high in the polls: “Schengen opens the doors to drugs and insecurity as well as to immigrants and refugees from all over the world.”

There was never a golden age in which Schengen was not contested. But in the end, despite serious debates, the French, Norwegians, Swiss all decided that it was in their national self-interest to belong to this club. Real progress became possible in the end because it became obvious even to cautious (French and other) policy makers that wherever Schengen had been put in place, it actually worked: the benefits were real for French citizens and the risks manageable. The fact that, following the lifting of border controls with the Benelux, France was not flooded by drugs helped build confidence. Similar experiences changed perceptions in Germany and other countries worried about the  effects of abandoning national border control.

Helmut Kohl and Romano Prodi
Helmut Kohl and Romano Prodi

The difficulties Romania and Bulgaria face in joining Schengen are also not unprecedented. When Italy, a member of the G7 and a founding member of the EU, formally applied to join Schengen in 1987 it took a decade (!) for its application to be approved by its partners, especially the ever skeptical Germans. Germany’s interior minister (and the influential Lander ministries) at the time had serious concerns about Italian laxness. Germany also insisted on the drafting of detailed questionnaires to be filled out by all applicants, including Italy, in order to assess their state of preparedness. Even after Italy met all conditions, Germany remained reluctant to give its approval. As Romano Prodi told me earlier this year in an interview in his hometown Bologna, he appealed directly to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at a meeting in Innsbruck in July 1997, going over the head of Kohl’s interior minister. Nor were Germans easily prepared to entrust their Austrian neighbours with managing Schengen’s external border on their behalf. As the interior minister of Bavaria at the time, Gunther Beckstein, recalled in a meeting in Munich this summer, it took a serious effort for Austrian leaders – and their “clever initiative” to invite Bavarian border police to help their Austrian colleagues in preparing for Schengen – to build trust and make German leaders feel at ease.  Today Beckstein, looking back, leaves no doubt that Schengen did not come at the price of German insecurity and constitutes an important success. It is also, in his view, very hard to reverse along the German-Austrian (or any other long) border: the German border police has been completely transformed. Countless new border crossings have emerged for citizens to take advantage of their new freedom to move.  Schengen Europe has become part of a new reality, accepted by police as well as by ordinary citizens in their daily lives.

Güther Beckstein
Günther Beckstein

How about the recent Danish proposal? The Danish insistence on restoring border controls, announced in spring, shocked many of its European partners. Again, some saw in this a sign of a wider unravelling of Schengen. EU officials expressed “extreme concern.” This triggered a fresh debate about the conditions under which member states could “temporarily” restore border controls. In the end, this debate lead to a proposal, presented by the European Commission a few weeks ago. It suggested that in the future imposing temporary national border controls, beyond the very short term, would require European Commission approval. This, together with a regulation to further strengthen the European frontier agency FRONTEX, recently adopted by the European Parliament, would in fact mark another step towards further supranational governance of all land borders in the Schengen area.

It is unclear whether such a proposal can actually be accepted today; it may not be. What is clear is that the debate is not one about dismantling Schengen. A new Danish government has also, in the meantime, decided to refrain from restoring border controls. The new government’s common policy (Regeringsgrundlag) emphasised both Denmark’s commitment to the Schengen Agreement and the intention to cooperate with other EU countries on border controls on the basis of EU treaties and rules. It concluded that “the plans from May 2011 to erect new control systems at the Danish borders will not be implemented.”


Measuring Europe’s border revolution

Denmark has less than 70 km of land borders; this made threats to reimpose border controls more credible than similar announcements would have been if made by most other EU member states. To put recent debates on European borders in a wider historical context it is helpful to quantify some of the dramatic changes which have taken place on the continent and which have transformed its borders.

The first act in the recent European border story was the creation of new borders. In 1989 European land borders had a total length of 25,032 km. Then, following the collapse of former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the total length of land borders in Europe went up to 37,409 km. This increase reflected the dramatic politics of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Most new borders were the result of a peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, but some were contested and fought over bitterly. Even today some borders in the South Caucasus and in the Balkans – such as the border between Serbia and Kosovo, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or within Georgia – remain contested, with future outbreaks of violence always a possibility. These borders remain what borders have traditionally been in European history: a razor’s edge “on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death of nation” (Lord Curzon), a source of tensions and conflicts.

The second act involved the removal of old borders. In 1985 a pioneering group of five countries first agreed on the aim to “abolish checks at common borders and transfer them to their external borders.”  (Schengen Agreement). It then took another five years to agree on the Schengen Implementation Convention. Ratification of it lasted until late in 1993 and in march 1995 the Convention finally entered into force. Since then the area covered by the Schengen agreement has grown dramatically. The result is that since 1995 physical border controls have been dismantled on European land borders totaling 16,447 km. (see the table below for all Schengen borders in Europe today)

The third act is in fact still unfolding: it involves testing the limits of the vision of a borderless Europe on a continental scale. This is a vision of breathtaking ambition; it is obvious that it can only be brought about through incremental steps over a long period of time. It consists of both the ongoing enlargement of Schengen to the East (to all existing and future EU members) and of the process of linking the prospect of visa liberalisation for other European states with reforms and close security cooperation of these states, turning them over time into competent partners of the EU in addressing common security concerns.

José Manuel Barroso, President of the EC, took part in the celebrations for the enlargement of the Schengen area which were held in Zittau, a town on the border of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic on 21 December 2007. Photo:  European Commission
José Manuel Barroso, President of the EC, took part in the celebrations for the enlargement of the Schengen area which were held in Zittau, a town on the border of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic on 21 December 2007. Photo:  European Commission

In the most optimistic scenario, based on recent experiences, more European countries will one day follow the Polish path. After shacking off communist rule Poland first signed a readmission agreement (agreeing to take back illegal immigrants passing through its territory) in March 1991. It did this at the time with the small group of five original Schengen members. Following this Poland was granted visa free access to all of these states on 8 April 1991. In 2004 Poland joined the European Union; finally, in late 2007, Poland joined the Schengen zone as a full member. With this step the Polish land borders with Germany, but also with the Baltic states, became invisible.


The basic dynamic

If Schengen is not actually facing a “new” crisis, the same could be said about the wider European border revolution – including further visa liberalisation.  The best reason to be confident that it will continue is the fact that the basic dynamics which has made this policy a success until now remain in place: a desire by outsiders to participate in a success story and an interest by EU member states to obtain cooperation in managing common problems. But in the future as in the past this will require serious confidence building and efforts on the part of non-EU countries.

Already today the promise of visa liberalisation as a long-term result of visa dialogues with the EU is triggering reforms among some members of the Eastern Partnership process, such as Moldova. The same approach has worked successfully to bring about domestic security sector and border reforms in all Western Balkan states after 2007. Such trends make policing the external borders easier, and extend the EU justice and home affairs acquis further.

It is only as part of a vigorous debate on how this border revolution is actually making Europe safer that it is going to be politically viable and likely to continue. But then, this has never actually been different from now.


Further reading:

I strongly recommend a book by Ruben Zaiotti on the changing culture of border control in Europe: Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers.

A few weeks ago ESI and Erste Stiftung also recently organised a public debate in Vienna. For this event Ruben also prepared a presentation, which you can watch here:  Freedom of movement in Europe – dream or nightmare in a populist age? (the whole debate can be listened to online)


Taking the measure of Europe’s borders


European Land Borders length in km Schengen status in 2011
Land Borders in 1989
1 Spain – Portugal 1214 Schengen border
2 Spain – France 623 Schengen border
3 Spain – Andorra 63,7
4 Andorra – France 56,6
5 (France – Monaco) (4,4)
6 France – Italy 488 Schengen border
7 France – Switzerland 573 Schengen border
8 France- Germany 451 Schengen border
9 France – Luxembourg 73 Schengen border
10 France- Belgium 620 Schengen border
11 Belgium – Netherlands 450 Schengen border
12 Belgium – Germany 167 Schengen border
13 Belgium – Luxembourg 148 Schengen border
14 Luxembourg – Germany 138 Schengen border
15 Switzerland – Germany 334 Schengen border
16 Switzerland – Italy 740 Schengen border
17 Switzerland – Liechtenstein 41 Schengen border
18 Switzerland – Austria 164 Schengen border
19 (Italy – San Marino) (39)
20 Italy – Austria 430 Schengen border
21 Italy – Slovenia 199 Schengen border
22 Austria – Liechtenstein 35 Schengen border
23 Austria – Germany 784 Schengen border
24 Austria – Czech Republic 362 Schengen border
25 Austria – Slovakia 91 Schengen border
26 Austria – Slovenia 330 Schengen border
27 Austria – Hungary 366 Schengen border
28 Germany – Czech Republic 646 Schengen border
29 Germany – Poland 456 Schengen border
30 Germany – Denmark 68 Schengen border
31 Germany – Netherlands 577 Schengen border
32 Czech Republic – Poland 615 Schengen border
33 Slovakia – Poland 420 Schengen border
34 Slovakia – Ukraine 90
35 Slovakia – Hungary 676 Schengen border
36 Hungary – Ukraine 103
37 Hungary – Romania 443
38 Hungary – Serbia 166
39 Hungary – Croatia 329
40 Hungary – Slovenia 102 Schengen border
41 Montenegro – Albania 172
42 Albania – Macedonia 151
43 Albania – Kosovo 112
44 Albania – Greece 282
45 Greece – Macedonia 246
46 Greece – Bulgaria 494
47 Greece – Turkey 206
48 Turkey – Bulgaria 240
49 Turkey – Georgia 252
50 Turkey – Armenia 268
51 Turkey – Azerbaijan Naxcivan exclave 9
52 Macedonia – Bulgaria 148
53 Serbia – Bulgaria 318
54 Serbia – Romania 476
55 Romania – Bulgaria 608
56 Romania – Moldova 450
57 Romania – Ukraine 538
58 Ukraine – Poland 428
59 Belarus – Poland 605
60 Lithuania – Poland 91 Schengen border
61 Russia (Kaliningrad exclave) 432
62 Norway – Sweden 1619 Schengen border
63 Norway – Finland 727 Schengen border
64 Norway – Russia 196
65 Sweden – Finland 614 Schengen border
66 Finland – Russia 1313
67 United Kingdom – Ireland 360
Total land borders in 1989


(without San Marino and Monaco)

New land borders since 1989
68 Czech Republic – Slovakia 197 Schengen border
69 Croatia – Serbia 241
70 Croatia – Bosnia and Herzegovina 932
71 Croatia -Montenegro 25
72 Croatia -Slovenia 455
73 Bosnia and Herzegovina – Serbia 302
74 Bosnia and Herzegovina – Montenegro 225
75 Montenegro -Serbia 124
76 Montenegro – Kosovo 79
77 Azerbaijan Naxcivan exclave – Armenia 221
78 Armenia – Georgia 164
79 Armenia – Azerbaijan 566
80 Georgia – Azerbaijan 322
81 Georgia – Russia 723
82 Azerbaijan – Russia 284
83 Macedonia – Serbia 62
84 Macedonia – Kosovo 159
85 Kosovo – Serbia 352
86 Ukraine – Moldova 940
87 Ukraine – Belarus 891
88 Ukraine – Russia 1576
89 Belarus – Russia 959
90 Belarus – Lithuania 680
91 Belarus – Latvia 171
92 Lithuania – Russia (Kaliningrad exclave) 227
93 Lithuania – Latvia 576 Schengen border
94 Latvia – Russia 292
95 Latvia – Estonia 343 Schengen border
96 Estonia – Russia 290
TOTAL new post-1989 land borders 12378
TOTAL pre and post 1989 land borders in 2011 37409
TOTAL Schengen borders in 2011 16447


Map of Schengen countries

A few words on methodology:

“European” land borders refers to the land borders of all European countries with each other.  “European” are all countries eligible to become or already members of the Council of Europe. This means that we counted the borders of Turkey with its European neighbours in the Balkans and in the South Caucasus, but not with Iraq or Iran. The same is true for Russia: we counted its European borders in the East and South, but not its borders with Central Asia.

One conceptual difficulty is posed by micro-states which are placed within EU member states: Monaco, San Marino, the Vatican. We decided to leave them out of the calculation, since even before 1989 there have been no real border regimes in place.

Andorra is not a member of Schengen.

In the case of Lichtenstein the border was traditionally managed by Switzerland, which is why we counted the border with Austria (but not the Lichtenstein-Swiss border).

Please do submit your comments and suggestions, however, how to improve the table and calculations, either here as a comment or to We would be most grateful.

Special thanks to my colleague Melissa Panzi, who was with ESI in Istanbul and is currently studying the relationship between the US and Mexico along their land borders at the university in Monterrey.

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