The Schengen Convention is an agreement among European states which allows for the abolition of systematic border controls between participating states. It also includes provisions for the development of enhanced co-operation in respect of law enforcement matters and judicial co-operation. There are currently 25 fully participating states comprising all EU member states, with the exception of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, and three non-EU states, namely, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Romania and Bulgaria aim to implement the agreement in 2011. Border posts have been removed between Schengen area states and a common Schengen visa allows tourist or visitor access to the area.
The Schengen Agreement was incorporated into the framework of the European Union under the Treaty of Amsterdam. The relevant protocol recognised that Ireland and the United Kingdom are not parties to the Schengen Agreement and made provision to allow those member states to accept some or all of its provisions at any time.
Ireland successfully applied to take part in certain elements of the Schengen Agreement. The activities in which Ireland applied to participate include police co-operation, mutual assistance in criminal matters, extradition and drugs co-operation. Ireland also applied to participate in related aspects of the Schengen information system, a European search database which assists member states' authorities in carrying out border checks and police and customs checks.
Ireland's application to participate in these specified articles of the agreement was approved by Council decision in 2002. In accordance with this decision, these provisions will come into effect only after a range of technical and legislative measures have been put in place and successfully evaluated by the Council. The measures which will enable Ireland to meet its Schengen requirements are currently being progressed.
Ireland has not, however, applied to participate in the Schengen arrangements to the extent that they deal with the abolition of border checks. This decision has been taken to maintain the common travel area, CTA, with the United Kingdom which remains a priority for Ireland. The operation of the CTA facilitates nationals of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Irish nationals moving around freely within it. Nationals of the European Union, as well as those of Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, enjoy extensive free movement rights as a matter of EU law. The operation of the CTA does not interfere with these rights.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The CTA could not continue to operate if Ireland were to remove border checks with Schengen states generally while the United Kingdom did not do so. To do so would result in the Border with Northern Ireland becoming the border between the Schengen area and the United Kingdom.
In an EU context, many of the issues covered by the Schengen Agreement are discussed on an ongoing basis in the relevant Council formats by all EU member states, including Britain and Ireland. In addition, the immigration authorities of my Department maintain close contact with their counterparts in the United Kingdom on an ongoing basis in respect of issues arising in the operation of the CTA. Such issues may include matters relating to the detection of abuses of the CTA or more generally with regard to any new immigration measures pertaining to the visa and border systems that may have implications for the CTA.
I have no plans to raise the matter with the Home Secretary at present. However, I will raise any appropriate matter with the UK authorities, as required.