A Schengen of Shenanigans

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Thinking of visiting Europe? Gabrielle recounts her experiences living and working in Europe, and her Schengen shenanigans, and surmises that students and foreign-based professionals should be allowed to move more freely within the Schengen area.

In the past couple years I have travelled, studied, worked and lived throughout mainland Europe. I have partied, dined and sight seen in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lyon, Geneva and Zurich, but as intriguing as this may sound, accessing these European countries was the most painstaking, nerve-wrecking, poverty-inducing process ever. Generally, travel within Europe (thanks to Eurostar and Easyjet) is amazingly cheap and convenient. The inconvenience, therefore, exists solely in the requirement for a Schengen visa.

In 1995, the Schengen Agreement was implemented by several European Countries thereby removing internal border controls within the Schengen Area. Presently, 25 European countries, including destination favourites, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Greece, are party to the agreement. The Schengen system enables Europeans to travel freely within the Schengen Area without the restriction of onerous visa applications. Several other countries have signed Schengen waiver agreements, and as such their citizens are also able to travel without a visa.

…the prognosis is grim.

For developing countries, however, the prognosis is grim. For most of us, even a two-day business trip to Switzerland requires a Schengen Visa. This is a fairly simple process. Not. First, you call the Embassy to book an appointment. This can be done by calling the Embassy and using their automated service which costs £1 per minute and takes about ten minutes to reach the booking stage of the phone call, in all you might end up spending about £15-£20 and getting an appointment for one month later. Then you have the pleasure of filling out a detailed three-page application form, taking three to four passport-size photographs, providing a bank statement for the past three months demonstrating sufficient means, a hotel booking, a plane or train booking, travel insurance, a job letter or enrolment certificate, passport and the non-refundable visa processing fee of £53.00. All this documentation must then be submitted to the Embassy to be kept for processing for as much as two weeks.

Sounds annoying, time consuming, humiliating and expensive? Well it most certainly is. Furthermore, although it is possible to be issued a three-month, multiple-entry Schengen Visa enabling you to travel indiscriminately in and out of the Schengen Area, this is a rare and arbitrary occurrence. Instead, you are more likely to be issued a single entry visa for the exact period within which you are booked to travel exclusively for that single European state. Therefore, if you were planning to visit multiple cities on that visa, you can forget it since it would be impossible to get another appointment in time.

Sounds annoying, time consuming, humiliating and expensive?

In the space of 18 months, I was issued no less than six separate Schengen Visas and spent approximately £1000.00 to facilitate travel to Europe. None of these applications were easy. For example, when I needed a six-month Schengen Work Visa for a posting in Switzerland I was stranded in Barbados for two weeks while my passport was sent to Caracas. When the passport was returned, all I received was a three-month single entry visa. That means that once I was in Switzerland I could not leave the Schengen Area because I would be unable to return. Furthermore, the only thing standing between the six-month visa and I was a police report since the placement letters from the ITC and WTO were insufficient to vouch for my character.

In another ridiculous Schengen story, my friend, a young professional resident in London, decided to surprise me with a visit while in Switzerland. She had gone to Germany the week before so she had two Schengen Visas in her passport. When she left Germany the passport personnel erroneously stamped the Visa for the Swiss visit, this was brought to her attention when she was about to board for Geneva, by the airport personnel who debarred her from getting on the flight. Now this was despite the fact that the dates and destination stamps would have revealed that this was clearly a mistake. There was no financial compensation available for the lost Visa processing fee and plane ticket.

…using the present system as such a tool is like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant…

Now I am not saying that European countries should be prevented from exercising their sovereign right to regulate visitors. However, using the present system as such a tool is like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant; in the end you kill the entire ants nest and tree on which it rests. Many people may wonder why not just go elsewhere. They will say that there are many other beautiful countries to visit that don’t require such a hazardous visa application process. I agree and I also chose that option many times, but to be fair when based in London or in Europe next door is where the best spontaneous limes occur. In fact, it is part and parcel of the European culture. Therefore, as a Trini you are most left out when you have to explain the need to have applied for your visa about six weeks before your workmates decided on a weekend getaway to Nice at Wednesday’s coffee break.

As Caribbean people, we cannot speak about bettering relations between ourselves and Europe, when we encounter such a complete hassle when travelling there. Presently, four Caribbean States (Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and St. Kitts and Nevis) have successfully negotiated Schengen waivers for their citizens. However, considering that these countries have notably small populations that enjoy a comparatively high standard of living, the chances of a waiver for countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana are exceedingly slim.

Well then if not a waiver, perhaps the creation of other categories of the visa. For example, a one or two-year multiple entry visa for university students who wish to travel to Europe frequently during the course of their study and/or a fast track application process for businessmen who need to access Europe at the spur of the moment to complete important business. If I can be granted a ten-year, multiple- entry visa to the US, a country to which gazillions of Trinidadians illegally migrate every year, then neither of these propositions are farfetched.

For students and foreign-based professionals the ability to move freely within the Schengen area is integral to building strong relationships with European counterparts, while experiencing a new and alternative way of life. Therefore, in order to move forward positively, we must massage the Schengen discourse by concentrating on finding solutions to problems like illegal migration while facilitating positive initiatives such as business and cultural exchange. As it stands, the system operates as an extraordinary disincentive and is out of place in this global world. As affected persons, it is important to voice our discontent.

Image credit: simsim


Gabrielle Gellineau is an Attorney-at-Law and Trade Consultant who loves to communicate via words, written and spoken. She can be contacted at caribbeanfutures@gmail.com. You can also check out her blogs www.carifuture.blogspot.com and www.geevoice.wordpress.com.

1 Comment

  1. Nightangel

    May 4, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    I know this is an old article, but I still feel compelled to respond. I recently travelled to the Schengen area and was able to move freely throughout. I received one visa (multiple entires for four months) even though my schedule was for two weeks. Once I entered France I did not have to show my visa again and I travelled to several countries. While what you described may have been your experience then, I think their procedures have changed since. I was also able to get my visa the same day, though some of the other persons who were there that day were told to return three days later.

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