On December 30, 2023, the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU announced that Romania and Bulgaria will be partially integrated into the Schengen area of free movement in March 2024. 

Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members since 2007, were rejected at the end of 2022 from joining the vast Schengen zone, within which more than 400 million people can travel freely without internal border controls. Although the European Commission and the European Parliament have been assuring for years that both countries are prepared to enter Schengen, Austria and the Netherlands blocked their accession until now. 

Following complicated negotiations, Bulgaria and Romania reached an agreement with Austria on joining the Schengen area for air and sea crossings to begin with, but not by land. For years, Vienna vetoed both countries, saying that Austria had to host a disproportionate number of undocumented immigrants as a result of poorly protected external Schengen borders. Together, the three countries will later agree on the date of when to end controls on Romania’s and Bulgaria’s land borders.

The Netherlands blocked Bulgaria’s entry for more than 10 years over concerns about the rule of law. The Dutch Parliament voted on December 21, 2023 to approve the position of the country’s government in favour of Bulgaria’s Schengen entry. 

Bulgaria and Romania: Criticism over two-step accession 

Austria’s reluctance to give a green light to the Schengen accession for the land borders has outraged some Bulgarian businesses. Vasil Velev, chair of the Board of the National Representative Association of Industrial Capital, said in an interview on national TV that his organisation demands a stronger reaction from the Bulgarian public and the government. ”After all the efforts we made and meeting all requirements for Schengen entry, why aren’t we equal with the rest,” Velev said. He argued that levers should be sought which would give political players in Austria a motive to change their position.

Austrian companies based in Bulgaria are currently subject to tax audits. Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Assen Vasilev has assured that the ongoing investigations by the Bulgarian tax authorities against the supermarket chain Billa and the petrol stations of OMV are unrelated to the Austrian position. “The tax investigators are currently scrutinising at least 500 to 700 companies,” the minister said. 

The minister did confirm that trucks that are going to and coming from Austria go through extra-stringent checks at the border, which is done at Austria’s request. “Of course, this leads to tensions at the border crossing points, especially with Turkey. That’s why we are planning more staff and more X-ray machines for lorry transports over the year,” he said. 

In Romania, the partial accession decision was welcomed by the ruling coalition and the business environment but criticised by the opposition. Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu described the decision as a big step forward, stressing that the Romanian Government will continue to work both politically and technically to complete the process this year. 

The National Council of Small and Medium Sized Private Enterprises in Romania (CNIPMMR) argued that the measure will facilitate trade by lowering transport costs for Romanian exported goods and commodities. It will also contribute to creating a climate of confidence and strengthening Romania’s image as a stable country within the EU. 

On the other hand, several Romanian MEPs voiced their dissatisfaction with this partial Schengen accession. MEP Eugen Tomac believes that the European Commission and the Spanish Presidency of the EU played the “compromise card” with Austria, while MEP Dacian Cioloș who is also former European Commissioner for Agriculture pointed out that Romanians are treated as second-class European citizens. “’The way we are now entering Schengen, in half and with absurd conditions (…) will deepen the feeling that we are not fully considered Europeans. We continue to depend on the goodwill of Austria and the other member states for a right we have had for 12 years. Secondly, we do not have a clear timetable for this hypothetical second decision,” Cioloș said.

Migration and the EU’s external border

The European Commission has promised to support Bulgaria and Romania in protecting the EU’s external borders. Bulgaria, in particular, will receive significant financial support from the European Commission, as well as operational and technical assistance from the European border agency, Frontex, especially at the border with Turkey and Serbia.

“Austria’s demands will be met,” wrote Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on X at the end of December. “The Frontex mission in Romania and Bulgaria will be increased and both countries will receive more EU funds to implement robust external border protection.”

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Mariya Gabriel hoped that a date for the abolition of land border controls would be confirmed in 2024.

The Government of Bulgaria, for its part, is committed to strictly applying the Dublin Regulation, which includes the readmission of people registered as asylum seekers in the country, in accordance with the Community rules on first-country responsibility. 

Meanwhile, Croatia’s Interior Minister Davor Božinović told the Croatian News Agency HINA that since Croatia joined the Schengen area in 2023 over 1,850 people smugglers were arrested by the Croatian police. He added that this “is an increase of more than 90 percent to last year”. Božinović said that Croatia’s Schengen accession brought changes to policing, adding that the police were prepared for the accession and are dealing with all challenges more than successfully.

Austria’s economy welcomes Schengen accession

Austrian business representatives spoke of an “important step” as the agreement makes things easier for companies. Austrian businesses are among the most important investors in Romania with 11.2 billion Euro and thus more than 61,000 local jobs, and in Bulgaria with 2.8 billion Euro and more than 21,000 local jobs, according to the Industrial Association. 

The Austrian Chamber of Commerce (WKÖ) called for further talks and a comprehensive solution: “Romania and Bulgaria are important economic partners for Austria’s economy, our companies are the second most important foreign investors in both countries and have important sales markets in the region.”

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