Have you ever wondered why the short stay visa application form for most European countries looks the same? Have you ever wondered why the required information in filling out the form is uniform? Have you ever wondered why the requisite documents in applying for a short visit visa to most European countries are practically the same? Have you ever wondered why the visa fee in the Euro currency is the same across for most European countries? Have you ever wondered why the visas issued by different European countries look the same in terms of features? Have you ever wondered how one embassy discovered you have had a refusal from the other, after getting yourself a new passport? Welcome to Schengen, where a simple agreement as well as a strict implementation regime makes all these possible.
The Schengen Agreement, implemented in 1995, is a convention currently binding on 26 European states who have decided not only to eliminate internal border controls, but also define a uniform procedure for the issuance of visa to citizens of non-member states. The convention not only guarantees the operation of a single database for all its members, but also ensures that adequate cooperation between internal and immigration officers is established.
Based on this convention, only ONE immigration check takes place, specifically at the very first point of entry, when accessing the Schengen area, irrespective of the number of member states you visit within the number of days the visa has been issued for, and so long as you do not exit the Schengen area within the period of validity of the visa. It is at this initial point of entry that the passport and visa are scanned to access the bio data of the passport holder, and a stamp of entry is issued in the passport. It is also at this point that immigration could deny a valid Schengen visa holder access to the Schengen area, based on several factors. The next time one would be required to submit his or her passport for checks again is at the last point of exit from the Schengen area, where a stamp of exit is issued in the passport.
There are of course exceptional cases where, for security or public policy reasons, Schengen Border Codes are issued to member states to re-introduce temporal border controls at internal borders within the Schengen zone. This then means that even after being checked and cleared at the first point of entry from outside the Schengen borders, a member state could re-run a check upon arrival at its internal borders, and could also deny you access to their country. Even though the convention indicates that this exception should be used as a measure of last resort, it is interesting to note that this is a prerogative of the member states, and the European Commission cannot veto any decision taken by member states in this regard. Currently, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and France have temporarily re-introduced internal border controls for varied security and public policy reasons.
Because of the no checks after the very first point of entry code of the convention, all member states of the Schengen agreement must adhere to laid-down procedure and requirement for the issuance of a Schengen visa to citizens of non-member states requiring entry visa to access the Schengen area to ensure uniformity in procedure and requirement. This implies that a member state cannot unilaterally enter into an agreement with a non-member state to overrule the entire Schengen visa procedure and requirement. Malta for example therefore, having joined the Schengen convention in 2003, cannot waive visa procedure and requirement for Ghana, without consequent implications to its membership to the Schengen convention. Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has had to subsequently clarify that “the Agreement on the visa waiver which was signed during the state visit applies only to holders of diplomatic and service passports on official assignment to the two countries.” And this agreement would be bound by stringent rules and guidelines, even though its feasibility is still unclear in terms of flying with airlines such as Air France, KLM, TAP or even British Airways, considering the fact that there is no direct flight to Malta from Ghana.
The operation of a single database set up by the convention is to ensure that personal information and bio data of any person from a non-member state accessing the Schengen area at any point in time, is captured and stored in one system – the Schengen Information System (SIS) – and accessible to immigration and internal security officers. This is the only way to account for and ensure security within the Schengen area. The only way these details are captured and stored in the SIS is through the visa issuance procedure. A Schengen member state could therefore not decide on its own to allow visa – free entry access to citizens of non-member states, without jeopardizing the database system in place for member states, which, consequently, could have adverse effect on cooperation between internal and immigration officers, resulting in security complications.
The information box at the end of the visa form provides details of how personal information is processed by authorities in the Schengen area. If you have never bothered to pay attention to the information box in the past, you are strongly advised to do so. And if you are a first time Schengen visa applicant, you must thoroughly read through the information on the processing of personal data, before filling out the visa form.
The author holds an MA in Public Administration and is currently a student of European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.