Schengen Enlargement: Romania and Bulgaria Move Closer, Austria Remains Reluctant

PeoplePoliticians ♦ Published: December 28, 2023; 18:36 ♦ (Vindobona)

A political agreement is emerging between Romania, Bulgaria, and Austria in the discussion about the expansion of the Schengen area. Romania and Bulgaria are aiming to apply the Schengen acquis at their air and sea borders from March 2024, but Austria remains cautious about the two countries fully joining the Schengen zone.

At the beginning of December, Gerhard Karner offered to drop the Schengen borders for air traffic with Bulgaria and Romania in exchange for stricter border controls / Picture: © BMI Bundesministerium für Inneres / Jürgen Makowecz

According to the Romanian government, an agreement in principle has been reached with Austria on the abolition of border controls on air and sea traffic from March 2024. Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu and Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov confirmed this political agreement, which they saw as a significant step for their countries. However, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, headed by Gerhard Karner (ÖVP), is cautious and refers to ongoing negotiations and specific conditions, as reported by ORF.

Austria's cautious stance

Despite this progress, the Austrian Interior Ministry emphasizes that there are currently no negotiations on Romania and Bulgaria's full accession to the Schengen area, as reported by ORF. Austria had previously vetoed the accession of both countries and continues to call for improved protection of the EU's external borders. In December, the Austrian government offered to relax the Schengen borders for air traffic if Brussels strengthens the EU's external borders through stricter border controls.

The Ministry of the Interior in Vienna explained that, for the time being, the "Schengen-Air" agreement only means that the passports of air passengers from Romania and Bulgaria will only be checked at the gate. Negotiations on the opening of land borders and full accession to the Schengen zone will continue next year.

Statistics on returns

In 2023, Austria applied for 193 transfers to Bulgaria, of which 106 were carried out, as reported by "DerStandard". In comparison, only 74 transfers were requested and 33 were carried out in 2022. Similarly, Austria requested a total of 3,493 transfers from Romania in the last two years, of which 2,911 were accepted and 243 were carried out.

European perspective

Negotiations are to be intensified in 2024 to achieve full Schengen membership for Bulgaria and Romania. The long-awaited enlargement of the Schengen area is seen as essential for strengthening European unity and cooperation. The integration of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area would not only increase freedom of travel within Europe but would also send a clear signal of solidarity and trust between EU member states. In addition, an expansion of the Schengen area would promote economic exchange and contribute to security and stability in the entire region.

While Austria's concerns regarding external border security are important, these are unfortunately primarily motivated by domestic politics to win votes for the 2024 elections. The willingness to engage in further talks shows the commitment of all parties involved to find a comprehensive and balanced solution in line with European values and interests.