Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania are “ready” to join the passport-free Schengen area after “strongly demonstrating” that they meet all the necessary criteria, the European Commission said.
What right does Schengen provide?
Schengen allows you to make cross-border trips without carrying a passport or going through border control. It covers 26 countries, including 22 EU countries, and almost 420 million citizens.
Schengen has boosted the EU’s economy and raised living standards since it was created in 1995, the European Commissioner for Internal Affairs Johansson said, urging member states to take a “decision in all our interests” and approve pending applications without further delay.
Admission of new members to Schengen
Admission of new members requires a unanimous vote. Joining Schengen requires, among other things, the application of standard rules, proper management of external borders, the exchange of security information, and practical police cooperation.
The Council of the European Union decided on December 8 to accept Croatia to the Schengen border-free area as of January 1, 2023. Still, as expected, Bulgaria and Romania were left out, and their prospects of joining soon are uncertain.
Expressing her disappointment at the outcome of the vote, the European Commissioner for Internal Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that she is convinced that she will secure the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area within her current mandate and promised to make this a priority.
Croatia completed the assessment process in 2020 and received a positive assessment in December 2021.
In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, the wait stretched for more than a decade. The commission confirmed the countries’ readiness in 2011 and repeatedly called on the member states to grant admission.
Bulgaria and Romania’s dual bids were initially opposed by France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium over concerns about corruption, organized crime, and judicial reform.
However, the opposition gradually weakened. This year, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed their support.
Countries blocking Bulgaria
Austria and the Netherlands blocked Bulgaria’s Schengen application. Austria also voted against Romania’s accession.
Austria’s objections stem from the country’s doubts that the two countries can deal with illegal migrants crossing their borders. This is especially true for Bulgaria, which Vienna has heavily criticized.
The Netherlands believes that Bulgaria lacks any progress in the fight against top corruption and organized crime.
Austria did not change its opinion after EC experts’ visits to Bulgaria and Romania and confirmed the readiness of the two states to join Schengen. The Netherlands rejected all its objections in the case of Romania, sending its experts to the place.
The two states, which joined the EU in 2007, met all the technical criteria by 2011 but failed to convince members of the borderless zone to accept them.
Croatia will enjoy the advantages of Schengen
In Croatia, all land borders with fellow Schengen members will be removed from January 1, 2023. The air borders will be lifted from March 26, considering the need to coincide with the IATA summer/winter schedule dates.
From January 1, Croatia will also start issuing Schengen visas and will be able to use the Schengen information system fully.
The government hailed the country’s accession to Schengen. Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called it a “great political achievement for the benefit of all citizens.”
Bulgarian politicians complain
In Bulgaria, politicians said the decision was unacceptable but correct. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Herba Kateryna Zakharyeva noted that the decision is unacceptable. She blamed Change Continues, whose four-party coalition has ruled the country for six months, as partly responsible, saying party co-chairman and former prime minister Kirill Petkov discussed with European leaders how bad things were in Bulgaria.
Petkov’s government exposed several large corruption schemes, starting with the third Gerb government.
Herb also accused Change Continue of uncovering a corruption scheme at the Bulgarian border crossing point with Turkey, where border controls on imported food had not been set up for ten years.
The co-chairman of Democratic Bulgaria, Hristo Ivanov, said that the country’s security services, border control bodies, the prosecutor’s office, and all institutions responsible for the fight against corruption should carry out urgent reforms.
The leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Cornelia Ninova, said the decision was humiliating.
Romania doesn’t agree with the decision
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said in a statement after the Council’s decision that Austria’s attitude is “regrettable and unjustified” and risks affecting European unity.
“A single member state chose to ignore the reality and blocked the European unanimity in a way that was inexplicable and difficult to understand by the entire European Union. The regrettable and unjustified attitude of Austria in today’s meeting risks affecting European unity and cohesion, which we need so much, especially in the current geopolitical context,” he said.
The Austrian ambassador in Bucharest was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which considers Vienna’s attitude towards Romania’s Schengen proposal “unacceptable, unjustified and unfriendly.”
Romania also criticized Austria’s last-minute change of mind”. “Austria’s position is all the more objectionable as this position … was expressed for the first time on November 18, 2022, while only two days before, on November 16, 2022, Austria expressed full support for Romania’s accession formally and officially at the meeting in Bucharest of the Salzburg Forum, through the Joint Declaration of the Ministers of the Interior adopted on that occasion, including Austria.
This text mentions the ‘support, presented in this format, for a positive decision related to the accession of Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia in December 2022’, said the ministry statement.
It will be held in the near future: two separate votes, one for Croatia and the other for Romania and Bulgaria.
Only unanimous approval can abolish checks at all internal borders and confirm willingness to join countries.
“It will be a truly European decision,” Johansson said of the upcoming vote.
“Schengen has survived the turbulence of recent years. These challenges have been surmounted because of a shared European spirit. And this spirit must continue.”