EU agrees on gradual entry of Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen border-free zone

European Union countries unanimously agreed Saturday on the gradual entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area of free movement after Austria, the last EU-27 country to oppose the measure, lifted its veto.

The decision means that controls at internal air and sea borders with the two countries – which joined the EU in 2007 – will be lifted from March, with Austria, Bulgaria and Romania also pledging to agree later on the date for the end of land controls, the Spanish rotating presidency of the EU announced.

“Congratulations to Romania and Bulgaria on the extension of Schengen for maritime and air transport passengers,” said European Council President Charles Michel via his profile on social networking site X (formerly Twitter).

Michel noted that this is “a long awaited step for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens to enjoy easier freedom of movement with the perspective of land transport to come”.

“Today is a day of great pride for Bulgaria and Romania,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on X, adding that “both have worked hard for it. They both deserve it. They will make Schengen even stronger.”

Spanish Interior Ministry sources described the agreement to EFE as “historic” and assured that it was one of the priorities of the Spanish rotating presidency of the EU Council, which ends tomorrow.

The sources also affirmed that the gradual lifting of controls at the internal borders of Bulgaria and Romania will “strengthen and expand” the European area of free movement and facilitate the movement of millions of people, with “a very positive social and economic impact on the entire region.”

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, pointed out that this “historic decision” by the Council “comes after 13 years of deadlock and is the result of political commitment and determination”, and hoped that “next year the Council will also be in a position to decide on the abolition of land border controls”.

Ready for integration

Although the European Commission and the European Parliament have been asserting for years that Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, are ready to join Schengen, Austria has so far blocked their integration.

Missions in 2011, 2022 and 2023 found that both Bulgaria and Romania met the necesary conditions to be part of the Schengen area without internal border controls, the EC said.

In March, the Commission also launched pilot projects with Romania and Bulgaria to improve external border management, strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries and ensure speedy asylum and return procedures.

Discussions on a date for the possible abolition of checks on persons at internal land borders will continue in 2024 and the Council is expected to take a decision on the matter within a “reasonable timeframe,” according to the Commission, which added that support will continue to be provided to Bucharest and Sofia financially and through the European External Borders Agency, Frontex.

The Schengen Treaty provides for the lifting of border controls between its member states, which currently cover 4.3 million square kilometers and about 420 million citizens of 27 European countries (23 EU members and 4 non-EU)

By Mian Saeed Ahmed Khan