One step towards the “European Balkans”: a partial enlargement of the Schengen area with Romania and Bulgaria

by | Apr 23, 2024

What is the Schengen area?

The Schengen area is one of the most well-known “achievements” of the European Union. It is a border control-free zone, allowing currently than 400 million Europeans and practically anyone physically present within to travel freely between its member states, practically without any border controls, not requiring any travel documents – it makes state borders disappear for travellers, and what is more important, for traded goods.

As mentioned above, the Schengen area is one of the main achievements of the European Union, dating back even before the EU itself. It was created in 1985 as an intergovernmental project between five EC member states (France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), named after the border city between Germany, France and Luxembourg, which later has gradually expanded to become the largest free travel area in the world. First, it was created in the form international treaties (the Schengen Agreement and the Schengen Convention signed in 1985 and in 1990 respectively), later has been re-regulated as part of European Union law, currently in the form of the so-called Schengen Borders Code.

Being part of the Schengen area means that states do not carry out ordinary checks at their internal borders (among themselves), except in cases of specific threats (which have to be specified by law), while they carry out harmonised controls at their external borders, which also has to be based on clearly defined legal criteria – these detailed rules are currently included in the abovementioned Schengen Borders Code.

The current area of the Schengen zone covers over four million square kilometres with a European population of more than 400 million people, and it includes 27 states. 23 out of the 27 EU member states, and all four member states of the European Free Trade Association, meaning Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland (who are not members of the EU, but has free access to the single European market). The last state joining the Schengen area was Croatia, on the 1st of January 2023, being the 27th member. The area has never been completely free even within the EU: internal border controls with Cyprus have never been lifted, and Ireland is not part of the Schengen area, just as the United Kingdom has never been, even before the Brexit. The later fact has always seriously discredited one of the most important messages of the Brexiteer British politicians: namely the one about “getting our borders back”, which practically they have never lost, as the UK has never been part of Schengen.

The benefits of the Schengen are hard to identify and pinpoint in exact terms. Allowing more than 400 million people to travel freely between states without going through border controls is not only a question of travelling comfortably, but has some additional advantages: the daily around 3.5 million people crossing internal borders for work or study (or just to visit families or friends), or making it easily possible for 1.7 million Europeans residing in one Schengen state while working in another adds to the general “European” identity, while the estimated annual 1.25 billion journeys within the Schengen area provides additional income to tourism and to the cultural sector. Additionally, it brings significant economic benefits to the economies of the participating states. Some estimates during the recent migration crises and the COVID pandemic have shown that a sudden disappearance of Schengen would cause an immediate raise in consumer prices as the result of growth in the costs of inter-state transportation.

It is also beneficial to non-EU nationals who are living in the EU or who are visiting the EU as tourists, exchange students or for business purposes, as they can also travel through the Schengen zone without going through any border controls.

At the same time, the EU and its member states have established measures to safeguard Europe’s security and reinforce the EU’s external borders. The creation of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and the development of the Schengen Information System (SIS) are two of the most important of these elements. The SIS is being used by member state authorities to enter or consult alerts about wanted or missing people and objects in the Union, while it also provides instructions to authorities on how to react when a person or object is found or in the case of arresting a wanted person, or when seizing an illegal or stolen object. There are other IT tools also available to help fight crime and to secure borders, like the Visa Information System (VIS), the Entry/Exit System (EES) or the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), which are all necessary to operate a single border control-zone.

The current (partly) accession of Romania and Bulgaria – after a lengthy process – was made possible by a decision of the Council on 30 December 2023, agreeing to lift the air and sea internal border controls with Bulgaria and Romania, with the full application of the Schengen acquis from 31 March 2024. This means that from that date onwards controls at internal air and sea borders will be lifted, and after that first step, lifting of checks at internal land borders will be the subject of a further decision should be taken by the Council. Hence this is a “partial” enlargement of the Schengen area, but already a significant result, considering the long and hard road to this point.

The long and uneasy road of Romania and Bulgaria to Schengen

A new state willing to join the Schengen area has to go through a lengthy process. First, it needs to fulfil a list of criteria. It needs to prove that it is able and capable to apply the Schengen acquis (meaning the common set of the applicable Schengen rules under current EU law, e.g. regarding border controls, visa issuance, police cooperation and personal data protection) and to take responsibility for controlling the external borders on behalf of other Schengen states, including the issuing uniform Schengen visas. It has to able to efficiently cooperate with law enforcement agencies in other Schengen states and to maintain a high level of security, after the internal border controls have been abolished that includes the ability to connect to and to use the SIS. Any state with this ambition has to undergo a series of evaluations, so that members can determine whether it fulfils these conditions necessary for the successful application of the Schengen rules.

And this is the “easy” part. The – seemingly – harder one comes only after this: a vastly political decision by the states already members. Once the abovementioned evaluation confirms the readiness of a member state to join the Schengen area, the other members of the Schengen area have to approve this decision unanimously, after a consultation with the European Parliament. This was one element, where Romania and Bulgaria has had some problems in the past, regardless of their actual readiness.

At the end of 2022, the Council adopted a decision on full application of the Schengen acquis in Croatia, after the needed evaluation procedures. It found that the necessary conditions for application of all parts of the relevant acquis have been met in Croatia, including the effective application of all Schengen rules in accordance with the agreed common standards and fundamental principles. The Council had come to this conclusion, while the European Parliament and the European Commission has expressed support to the Schengen membership of Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria at the same time in numerous resolutions, calling upon the Council to take the needed decisions without any further delay, allowing these three new EU member states to join the area as soon as possible. But unfortunately, some of the member states have not shared this supportive attitude thus while the Council decided on full application of the Schengen acquis for Croatia, some member states blocked the accession of Romania and Bulgaria. As the required unanimity for their Schengen accession was not reached then, the two countries joining the EU in 2007 were overtaken by the one joining in 2013. This has come to some extent as a surprise, as the European Commission had approved both member states’ readiness already in 2011, but the political decision is being made by the member states, not the Commission.

As a result of this, 2023 has begun with the abolishment of border inspections at internal land and sea borders between Croatia and the other members of the Schengen area, while Romania and Bulgaria had to continue with the political process of obtaining support from all member states – while still enjoying support from other European institutions (see e.g. the resolution adopted on 12 July 2023, the European Parliament, reiterating its earlier call on the Council to approve Romania’s and Bulgaria’s accession).

It was a long process to try to break the ice, but seemingly finally some serious progress has been made, making the current enlargement possible. For 2024, the two Balkan member states have managed to secured an agreement with Austria (the last opposing member state) to partially enter the Schengen zone by air and sea starting March 2024. Widely seen as a major diplomatic breakthrough, the agreement was reached by months of intense negotiations between Bucharest, Sofia, and Vienna. Future negotiations and work are still ahead to reach agreement related to land borders as well, which will expectedly conclude during the year of 2024.

There were more reasons of the resistance from some member states: fear over migration, rule of law concerns were among the main reasons, but some dissatisfaction towards the Schengen zone and domestic political tensions can also be identified. As Austria at one point has put it, Schengen should become “better, not bigger” before expanding it, while concerns over increased irregular migration via the Western Balkan routes have also been echoed in the case of an immature accession of Romania and Bulgaria, directly leading to the veto of Austria and the Netherlands at the end of 2022. The Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU has put serious efforts into the negotiations between the parties, finally managing to reach a compromise with the “Air Schengen” proposal, which has led to Austria agreeing to partially lift blocks on air and sea travel, while the Netherlands have gradually softened its position as a result of convincing legislative work by the two states (including anti-corruption reforms and establishing of new migration monitoring mechanisms).

After the current step, with air and sea access secured, Romania and Bulgaria will now negotiate their full membership into the Schengen area, including land borders, meaning further negotiations with Austria and the European Commission during 2024. The Austrian position seems to be realistically convincible: so long it has required increased Frontex presence on the Turkish border of Bulgaria and on the Serbian border of Romania, and more EU funds to a better protection of these border sections against irregular migration flows. So far the European Commission has expressed consent with these requirements, so there is a good reason to be optimistic in the matter, while nobody dares even to estimate a timeline for a possible deal.

Effects on further EU enlargement?

If the EU is serious about its future enlargement towards the Balkans, the Schengen-related uncertainty had to be settled, as it has started to raise not only concerns related to the disagreement of the parties, but also some toxic ideas related to the EU handling Bulgarians and Romanians as “second-class Europeans”. Considering the already questionable ambitions related to a possible future enlargement, this sentiment does not help the de-escalation of the tensions in the region. The closure of this ongoing debate is a primary interest of the European Union.

Of course this has not ever necessarily been a concern of the opposing member states, but now we have good reasons to expect this tension to go away soon. Additionally, the legislative work made by the two Balkan states can serve as a good example for candidates of a future accession, and also as a fine example for “good work done” (as put in the social media by the Dutch ambassador to Romania, announcing the support of the government) for a good reason.

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