The EU Keeps Bulgaria and Romania Waiting for Schengen

December 04, 2023
Bulgaria and Romania hope to receive the green light to join the EU’s visa-free travel area by the end of the year.

When it meets on December 4–5, the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council will not address the issue of Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen visa-free travel area, contrary to the strong expectation in their capitals that this would be the case. Both countries are compliant with all the technical requirements, but so far they have been blocked by a couple of member states as the decision must be unanimous. It is now likely that another meeting of EU interior ministers will be held at the end of the year or at the beginning of the next to decide on their accession.

If the EU lets this situation continue any longer, this will have serious political implications and also benefit Russia’s regional agenda—whereas finally admitting Bulgaria and Romania into Schengen would strengthen the EU’s resilience and integration. 

Their respective treaty of accession to the EU, which entered into force in 2007, foresee Bulgaria and Romania joining Schengen after meeting certain technical requirements, which they did over a decade ago, as stated by the European Commission. Therefore, their joining is not a technical issue but a political one. They have faced political resistance from other member states, most notably Austria and the Netherlands, and in the past Germany too. The reasons given have been lack of adequate improvement in combatting corruption and organized crime, deficient rule of law, and migration control.

Accession to Schengen has been a priority for both countries, regardless of changes in government over the years. For the current pro-EU government in Sofia, joining Schengen by the year’s end has been a top priority. Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov told the European Parliament in November that further delay was unacceptable in light of Bulgaria having met all requirements. Romania has threatened to take Austria to the European Court of Justice over this issue, and it also tries to use Austrian economic interests in exploring the Neptun Deep gas reserve in the Black Sea to pressure Vienna.

Accession to Schengen has been a priority for both countries, regardless of changes in government over the years.

For Austria, migration is the key matter. According to Interior Minister Gerhard Karner, the Schengen system as a whole does not work. The government refers to the high number of irregular crossings at the external borders of the EU (over 230,000 in 2023) to explain why Bulgaria and Romania cannot count on its support. Yet, only 2% of the people involved reach Austria and other EU countries through Bulgaria, according to Sofia. What is more, Vienna did not stop Croatia from joining Schengen in 2022 despite reports of frequent breaches of EU and international human rights by the Croatian authorities. Austrian business suffers serious losses from the lack of free movement with Bulgaria and Romania, and some are trying to convince the government to lift its veto. However, with elections in 2024, doing so could further boost the popularity of the far right.

For the Netherlands, corruption is the main issue. It has said it will give its support for Bulgaria to join Schengen only after an additional fact-finding mission. On November 30, the mission—which included representatives of Austria and the Netherlands—assessed positively the country’s readiness. According to the government in Sofia, the mission found that increased efforts at the EU’s external borders and inside Bulgaria, along with increased cooperation with Serbia and Turkey, helped reduced the migration pressure on the Western Balkans route by almost 25% in 2023. Later in December, Bulgaria’s parliament should also adopt constitutional changes that the Netherlands had been stressing.

The Netherlands could announce its support for Sofia soon if its new parliament meets and a government is formed. On the other hand, with the far-right anti-migrant Party for Freedom having come first in the recent elections, Amsterdam’s long-standing opposition could be reinforced too. According to diplomatic sources, Austria might also change its position by the end of the year.

There is at the same time widespread EU-level political support for Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen case.

According to Transparency International, Bulgaria and Romania are respectively the second-most and third-most corrupt EU countries. However, Bulgaria recorded the greatest progress in 2023 in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. Moreover, this year the European Commission closed the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for Bulgaria and Romania, which had been put in place at accession because of their shortcomings pertaining to corruption and judicial reform, in a further recognition of their progress.

There is at the same time widespread EU-level political support for Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen case, with their readiness confirmed by figures such as European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The European Commission and the European Parliament support the two countries joining Schengen. The commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, has said that they should be admitted “without any further delay”.

Joining Schengen would strengthen Bulgaria’s integration within the EU, and improve the EU’s image among Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. It would also help the EU’s resilience in the region, especially considering Russia’s ongoing intense disinformation campaigns there. Both countries also suffer economic losses due to border controls and long lines of waiting trucks, with higher transport costs and greater air pollution too. The damage is up to several billion euros for Romania, its economy minister, Stefan-Radu Oprea, said recently. And Bulgarian and Romanian migrants who work in Austria suffer from the restricted movement.

Recent years have shown that the Schengen system is not crisis-proof. Illegal migration is a concern for an increasing number of EU members, and Austria, Czechia, and Germany have introduced temporary internal border controls. Schengen may need reform before being extended to more countries, but this may take years and keeping Bulgaria and Romania waiting would not improve the chance of having more secure borders. On the other hand, even if they receive a green light, they will have to work harder to reduce the pressure on the EU’s external borders.

Keeping Bulgaria and Romania waiting to join Schengen will just send the message to their people that they are second-class EU citizens and that their progress is not being recognized, exhausting the patience of Bucharest and Sofia. It will also likely discourage reforms and pro-EU stances there. Russia and pro-Russian circles and their destabilization attempts and narratives would also benefit. This is especially true for Bulgaria where the fragile pro-EU and pro-Ukraine coalition government would be weakened even further.

If the member states cannot reach an agreement soon, this will signal their inability to move forward with important decisions when geopolitical unity is required. Given Russia’s attempts to influence and destabilize Southeastern Europe, it does not serve the EU’s security at all.