Occasionally I receive tweets which tell me that EFTA membership would be politically unacceptable because it requires signing up to the Schengen Agreement. This is not true. The inclusions of each of the four EFTA members, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland are merely voluntary and entirely separate opt-ins. Membership of the Schengen area and EFTA - whether a country is in the Single Market or not - are not mutually inclusive events. The participation of EFTA states is merely coincidental.
Schengen, most will by now know, is the borderless zone in Europe which removes the need for passport checks amongst those moving between partied states. At present, the area consists of 26 European countries: 22 are members of the European Union and the remaining four are EFTA. We can see that joining Schengen is not an absolute for EU members, as the entirety of the British Isles is exempt, as well as Cyprus, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria.
The purpose of Schengen is to maximise cross-border cooperation between states and facilitate free flow of citizens. At internal borders, member states remove unnecessary barriers to travel, such as ID checks or any obstacles which attack the fluidity of road traffic. The area does not completely eradicate police checks. If there is reason to suspect a possible threat to public security, border checks may be temporarily imposed.
According to the EU: "A protocol attached to the Treaty of Amsterdam incorporates the developments brought about by the Schengen Agreement into the EU framework. The Schengen area is now within the legal and institutional framework of the EU." Despite not every EU member being a part of it, Schengen is an EU mechanism. EFTA participants retain, in effect, the status of associate membership.
Each of the four EFTA states became party to the Schengen Agreement at different times and for different reasons. Both Switzerland and Liechtenstein began integration into Schengen in February 2008, after the conclusion of bilateral agreements with the EU. Almost six years ago to the day, Liechtenstein abolished all internal border checks and fully established its membership. In the case of Switzerland, land and airport checks had been removed by March 2009.
Norway and Iceland became immersed into the fabric of Schengen in 2001, after initially agreeing to accede in December 1996. From what I gather, it appears the two countries initially did not enjoy voting rights in the Schengen Executive Committee until their association was extended in May 1999. It is also here worth mentioning that the Nordic Passport Union facilitates the abolition of border checks between Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
The important deduction from all of this is that EFTA is not a precursor to inclusion into the Schengen Agreement, association or otherwise. It just so happens that each of the four countries joined. Interestingly, each of the countries faces little domestic pressure to reduce immigration and existing arrangements in place before accession ensured it was not a particularly big deal. For the EFTA states, the really important difference was gaining access to information-sharing IT systems.
Beyond this, the EFTA Convention produces no reference to Schengen. There are eight references to 'free movement', with some pertaining to goods. Joining EFTA requires accepting free movement between bloc members, but this is a relatively small number of people and already existed thanks largely to the Nordic Passport Union and treaty annexes establishing specific movement protocols between Liechtenstein and Switzerland, both of which remain closely geographically and economically interwoven.
Schengen will never be politically acceptable to Britain and I concede this. Nor do I particularly want us to join it. We have access to the Schengen Information System, an online device relied upon for strengthening internal security in the absence of cross-border checks, and this will have to do. It does, though, mean we cannot issue or access Schengen-wide alerts for refusing entry or stay into the Schengen area. In the event of rejoining EFTA, our opt-out would remain in tact. There is no back door for us to worry about.