Bulgaria and Romania Take First Step Toward Full Schengen Area Integration

Bulgaria and Romania Take First Step Toward Full Schengen Area Integration

On March 31st, 2024, the Schengen zone expanded to include Bulgaria and Romania. 

This means that travelers exempted from holding a Schengen visa can now travel between these countries without needing a passport, and there will not be any checks at the borders when traveling by air or sea.

This change came after the EU Council decided in December 2023 to include Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen zone. It shows that Europe is moving toward closer integration and cooperation among its member countries.

Smooth transition to unrestricted air and sea travel

Since December, both countries have been working to put in place the required steps for Schengen rules to take effect smoothly starting March 31st.

The European Commission launched Cooperation Frameworks earlier in March to bolster collaboration on migration, border security, and streamlined asylum procedures.

These frameworks build upon successful pilot projects for fast asylum and return processes.

Additionally, a regional police cooperation initiative has been set up among member states along major migration routes, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia.

This move aims to jointly address cross-border crime and other shared challenges in a sustainable manner.

Proven commitment to Schengen security and values

Bulgaria and Romania have consistently shown strong dedication to protecting the borders of the European Union (EU) and ensuring safety within the Schengen area.

By joining, they have helped to extend the largest zone for free movement globally, making it even more appealing.

Their accession expands the world’s largest area of free movement, making it even more attractive. 

Lifting of land borders

While air and sea borders are now open, the EU Council must decide on a date to lift checks at internal land borders with other Schengen countries.

The Commission is committed to providing complete assistance to make sure this last phase happens in 2024, marking the completion of Bulgaria and Romania’s integration into the Schengen area.

A cherished European achievement grows stronger

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen celebrated this achievement as a significant success and a pivotal moment for the Schengen area.

She stressed that the countries involved are working towards creating a more robust and united Europe that benefits all its citizens.

Untapped potential for air travel growth

The aviation and tourism sectors welcomed the move, citing positive impacts on connectivity, social cohesion, and economic growth.

Olivier Jankovec, who serves as the Director General of Airports Council International Europe, highlighted that integrating the Schengen area is a step toward enhancing European unity and promoting fairness by ensuring the right to free movement.

He added that Bulgaria and Romania, despite having lower rates of air travel compared to the EU average, offer significant potential for expanding air traffic.

David Ciceo, President of the Romanian Airport Association, expects over 14 million Schengen passengers at Romanian airports in 2024 alone – nearly 70% of total traffic.

A dream 13 years in the making

For citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, being included in the Schengen area brings back a strong feeling of pride and connection to Europe.

According to experts in foreign policy, many Bulgarians and Romanians felt singled out when they had to go through separate lanes at border crossings.

At airports like Sofia, the removal of border control queues was immediately apparent. Bulgarian and Romanian citizens remarked at how they were able to clear border checks in just a few minutes.

Thorough implementation to prevent illegal movement

To prevent illegal movements, both countries have boosted staff like border police and conducted random checks to catch false documents and human trafficking attempts. 

Bulgaria and Romania’s governments assured passengers and stated that detecting those who want to take advantage of leaving Romania illegally is a priority.

The road transport obstacle

However, not all sectors have equal cause for celebration yet.

Road transport unions lament being left out, stuck with exorbitant financial losses from endless waits at land borders with neighbors.

For example, Romania’s UNTRR union has reported that truck drivers often have to wait in queues for eight to 16 hours at the Hungarian border and up to 20 to 30 hours at the Bulgarian border.

Despite these challenges, both governments are determined to move forward with the process.

They insisted that achieving full Schengen membership, which includes open land borders, is a goal that must be reached by the end of the year.

Freer movement for visa-free travelers

For visitors to the EU from outside the expanded Schengen area, the accession eases travel to Bulgaria and Romania.

Those approved for the upcoming European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) can now journey between these countries and other Schengen members without extra checks.

Setting the immigration rhythm

With Bulgaria and Romania joining Schengen by air and sea, EU immigration procedures will adapt.

Countries will need to adjust their visa issuance and external border policies to match the updated Schengen regulations. This could also lead to some changes in general immigration procedures.

However, unified standards and data-sharing should strengthen migration management across the newly expanded zone.

The road to full Schengen integration will likely prompt further policy shifts as internal land border removals progress.

A new era for united Europe

The Schengen area’s expansion to encompass Bulgaria and Romania by air and sea is unquestionably a historic milestone.

It symbolizes the EU’s commitment to an ever-closer union built on the tangible benefits of the free movement of people.

While key transportation sectors eagerly await full integration, this first step has unlocked newfound travel freedom and restored a sense of dignity for millions of EU citizens.