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An integration milestone: Romania and Bulgaria will join the Schengen area by March 31st

The topic has now received renewed attention in light of the war in Ukraine and the consequent flow of migrants both to Romania and Bulgaria, and to the EU. However, the protracted negotiations behind their accession have highlighted the uncertainty about where the EU is headed. 

The reasons behind some member states’ hesitation about their entrance have been political rather than technical. Austria and the Netherlands, in particular, have always shown a certain degree of reluctance, because, as they have stated, measures regarding limiting criminal activities and corruption were ineffective in these countries. Furthermore, Bulgaria and Romania’s rule of law and their immigration legislation are out of their control and do not match the European standards on the matter, according to the Netherlands and Austria. While the majority of EU-27 Member States in 2008 reported more immigration than emigration, in Bulgaria and Romania emigrants outnumbered immigrants.

However, Austria and the Netherlands’ discussions refer to the past more than to the present. Nowadays the situation is different, as immigration and emigration procedures are much more regulated and controlled by the states and this has been further confirmed by the pilot projects launched by the European Commission.

Despite Austria and the Netherlands’ scepticism the European Commission launched pilot projects - given the favourable vote of the majority of Member States - intending to strengthen cooperation with Romania and Bulgaria and to ensure easier and faster procedures regarding both the asylum and the return of immigrants, as well as to reinforce the management of the external borders in both countries, implemented with some operational and technical support from the Commission, Frontex, and Europol in March 2023. 

This is a concrete and important deliverable of Romania and Bulgaria’s level of commitment and support for regular and sustainable migration management, demonstrating their capability of meeting all the requirements needed to access the Schengen area.

Due to its vicinity and strategic position between other countries that are not part of the EU - such as Serbia and Moldova - Romania plays a key role in securing the EU’s external borders, strongly contributing to the management of migration and security inside the European borders. Bulgaria has reinforced its collaboration with Europol and other European institutions to combat illegal systems and networks and to limit migration from Bulgaria to the EU, including the establishment of a specific Operational Task Force.

In October 2023, six months after implementing the pilot projects in Romania and Bulgaria, the Commission reported positive follow-up and improvements in both countries. Following the positive result of the two pilot projects, the European Commission and the European Parliament approved Romania and Bulgaria’s entrance into the Schengen area, despite Austria and the Netherlands’ dissent - waiting for approval of the Council.

The situation further changed in December 2023 when Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner announced a softening of the Austrian position, in exchange for strengthened border controls and consolidated security measures, Austria would permit passport-free air travel from Romania and Bulgaria. 

Following another series of negotiations on the 23rd of December 2023, Austria, Bulgaria, and Romania reached a political agreement about the partial entry of the countries into the Schengen Area, as stated by Romania’s Interior and Prime Minister. As a result, the European Commission has embraced the European Council’s unanimous and unified decision to give Romania and Bulgaria access to the Schengen area by the end of March 2024, thus momentously reducing controls at sea and air borders, with the possibility of subsequently reaching an agreement regarding land borders.

Their entry into the area implies greater freedom of the movement of people, with simplified controls between partner countries. It also implies a cutting of the costs for both people and businesses. Furthermore, if Bulgaria and Romania hadn’t had the approval for accession to the Schengen Area, they would have experienced an increase in economic and social inequalities, with repercussions for the EU as a whole. Their accession to the Schengen Area strengthens the level of integration inside the EU and increases the EU’s resilience in the Southeast European region, especially in light of Russia’s ongoing intense disinformation campaigns there. 

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