The Council of the European Union decided on December 8 to accept Croatia to the Schengen border-free area as of January 1, 2023, but as expected Bulgaria and Romania were left out and their prospects of joining in the near future are uncertain.
Expressing her disappointment at the outcome of the vote, the European Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ylva Johansson said that she is convinced that she will secure the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area within her current mandate and promised to make this a priority.
Asked by Romanian journalists if the issue of Romania and Bulgaria's accession to Schengen could end up on the agenda of the European Council next week, Johansson said she would be surprised if this happened, but specified that she supports any approach for the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to Schengen.
The decision was a further endorsement of Croatia’s progress as the country is also entering the eurozone and will start using the euro as of January. However, it was a slap in the face to the politicians of Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU years earlier than Croatia but have failed so far to gain enough trust to be admitted to the Schengen area.
“I am very pleased that during the Czech [EU Council] presidency, Croatia was able to take two important steps in its European integration by joining both the euro and the Schengen areas,” Vit Rakusan, Czech minister of interior, said in a statement.
“I am confident that these successes will pave the way for other member states who fulfil the conditions to take the next step in their European journeys, and my colleagues and I will continue to work hard to ensure that we can welcome Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen family in the near future,” he added.
Austria and the Netherlands block Bulgaria
Bulgaria’s Schengen bid was blocked by both Austria and the Netherlands. Austria also voted against Romania’s accession.
Austria’s objections are related to the country’s doubts that the two countries can deal with illegal migrants crossing their borders. This is particularly valid for Bulgaria, which was harshly criticised by Vienna.
The Netherlands believes that Bulgaria lacks any progress in the fight against top-level corruption and organised crime.
Austria did not change its opinion after visits to Bulgaria and Romania, carried out by EC experts, confirmed the two states' readiness to join Schengen. The Netherlands dropped all its objections in the case of Romania, after sending its own experts on the ground.
The two states, which joined the EU in 2007, had fulfilled all technical criteria by 2011, but have been unable to convince the members of the borderless zone to admit them.
In Croatia, all land borders with fellow Schengen members will be removed on January 1, 2023. Air borders will be removed from March 26, given the need for this to coincide with the dates of the IATA summer/winter time schedule.
From January 1, Croatia will also start to issue Schengen visas and will be able to make full use of the Schengen Information System.
The country’s accession was hailed by the government in Zagreb. Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called it a “great political achievement for the benefit of all citizens”.
Bulgarian politicians blame each other
In Bulgaria, politicians commented that the decision was unacceptable but fair. Gerb’s former foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said the decision was absolutely unacceptable. She blamed Change Continues, whose four-party coalition ruled the country for six months, as being partly responsible, saying the party’s co-leader and former prime minister Kiril Petkov has been talking to European leaders how bad the situation in Bulgaria is.
Petkov’s government revealed several major corruption schemes dating back to the third Gerb government.
Gerb also blamed Change Continues for revealing a corrupt scheme at a Bulgarian border checkpoint with Turkey where there were no border controls of imported food for 10 years.
Democratic Bulgaria’s co-leader Hristo Ivanov said that the country’s security services, border control authorities, the prosecution and all institutions responsible for the fight against corruption must carry out urgent reforms.
The leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) Kornelia Ninova said the decision was humiliating.
Romania summons Austrian ambassador
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said in a statement following the Council decision that Austria's attitude is "regrettable and unjustified" and risks affecting European unity.
"A single member state chose to ignore the reality and blocked the European unanimity, in a way that was inexplicable and difficult to understand by the entire European Union. The regrettable and unjustified attitude of Austria in today's meeting risks affecting European unity and cohesion, which we need so much, especially in the current geopolitical context,” he said.
The Austrian ambassador in Bucharest was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which considers Vienna's attitude against Romania's Schengen bid "inadmissible, unjustified and unfriendly".
"This will have inevitable consequences on bilateral relations," according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Romania also criticised Austria's last-minute change of mind". "Austria's position is all the more inadmissible as this position ... was expressed for the first time on November 18, 2022, while only two days before, on November 16, 2022, Austria expressed full support for Romania's accession formally and officially at the meeting in Bucharest of the Salzburg Forum, through the Joint Declaration of the Ministers of the Interior adopted on that occasion, including Austria, a text that mentions the 'support, presented in this format, for a positive decision related to the accession of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia in December 2022'," said the ministry statement.