Partial Schengen Accession for Romania and Bulgaria Takes Effect in 2024

Partial Schengen Accession for Romania and Bulgaria Takes Effect in 2024

After over a decade of delays, Romania and Bulgaria have finally made significant strides toward joining the Schengen Area.

The two Balkan nations secured an agreement with Austria to partially enter the borderless zone by air and sea starting March 2024.

Partial Accession Agreed for Air and Sea Travel

In a major diplomatic breakthrough, Romania and Bulgaria will have access to the Schengen Area by air and sea from March 2024.

This partial accession was agreed upon with Austria, following months of intense negotiations between Bucharest, Sofia, and Vienna.

Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu welcomed the deal, stating that after 13 years of waiting, Romania will finally join Schengen.

He expressed confidence that negotiations for land borders will conclude in 2024.

Similarly, Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov noted this agreement came after long and complicated talks.

He called it an “indisputable success” for Bulgaria after 12 years of stagnation in Schengen discussions.

The European Commission had approved both countries as ready for Schengen as far back as 2011.

However, objections from European Union (EU) states over migration fears and rule-of-law concerns obstructed their accession.

Austria Initially Firm on Blocking Full Accession

Austria was the last member state strongly opposing Romania and Bulgaria’s full membership in the borderless travel zone.

Earlier in December, Vienna maintained its stance that Schengen should become “better, not bigger” before expanding.

Austria cited concerns over increased irregular migration into Europe via the Turkish and Western Balkan routes if Romania and Bulgaria joined Schengen.

Back in December 2022, Austria vetoed both countries’ access along with the Netherlands.

However, Austria recently showed signs of compromise with its “Air Schengen” proposal. This envisaged partial entry via air travel only.

After negotiations mediated by the Spanish EU Council Presidency, Austria agreed to partially lift blocks on air and sea travel.

Complex Negotiations on Land Borders to Follow

With air and sea access secured, Romania and Bulgaria will now negotiate their full membership into Schengen, including land borders.

This will involve further talks with Austria and the European Commission in 2024.

Austria has asked for increased Frontex presence on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey and Romania’s border with Serbia.

Vienna also wants more EU funds to bolster the protection of these frontiers against irregular migration flows.

Bulgaria's prime minister said the European Commission agreed to provide support to better guard the EU’s external borders with Turkey and Serbia.

Both are seen as major routes for asylum seekers trying to enter Europe.

What is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area guarantees free movement across internal borders between member states.

It functions as a single jurisdiction for international travel and cooperation for cross-border enforcement.

There are currently 27 members in the Schengen zone, including 22 EU states and their neighbors Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.

Over 420 million citizens enjoy passport-free travel within Schengen.

Romania and Bulgaria were approved by the EU Commission based on meeting technical requirements around air, land and sea border management, police cooperation, data protection, and visa procedures.

Progress Despite Challenges

While negotiations continue, Romania and Bulgaria have underscored their commitment to meet all obligations for Schengen inclusion.

Both countries have passed new laws and reforms to satisfy the criteria.

The partial agreement marks significant progress despite the complexities.

The full accession of Romania and Bulgaria will depend on the upcoming talks, but the willingness to compromise indicates hopes for a resolution in 2024.

No Definitive Timeline on Land Borders

Addressing Bulgaria’s ongoing Schengen accession process, Prime Minister Denkov clarified no specific date has been established for including land borders.

He stated Bulgaria is holding talks with Austria and Romania, alongside discussions with the European Commission.

While Austria agreed to keep negotiating about full membership, Denkov explained the exact schedule is still undetermined.

He dismissed any notion of separating Bulgaria and Romania during the accession process, emphasizing the need for a joint approach.

Denkov highlighted Austria’s request to the European Commission for assistance in handling border security issues.

He said this aligns with Bulgaria's interests in effective migration management.

Recent Legal Reforms Paved the Way for Progress

The prime minister underscored that new laws passed by Bulgaria’s National Assembly played a vital role.

These laws helped meet expectations from the Netherlands and the European Commission, leading to the lifting of the Dutch veto.

Denkov thanked the deputy prime minister and interior minister for their instrumental efforts in the negotiations.

He reiterated the importance of maintaining confidentiality during ongoing sensitive diplomatic talks.

Phased Accession Likely But Date Uncertain

Deputy Prime Minister Mariya Gabriel expressed optimism about Schengen developments in the coming year.

She outlined plans to lift air and sea border controls by March, followed by subsequent phases involving land borders.

However, Gabriel acknowledged the complexities involved in the ongoing negotiations.

While hopeful for full membership by end-2024, she stressed relentless collaboration was needed with Austria, Romania, and the EU Commission to achieve this goal.

Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov similarly emphasized his ministry’s consistent dedication to Bulgaria’s Schengen accession, despite numerous challenges faced.

He praised the coordinated efforts between various Bulgarian institutions throughout this prolonged process.

What This Means for Travelers and Immigrants

The partial Schengen accession for Romania and Bulgaria will directly impact travelers and immigrants to Europe.

Starting March 2024, air and sea travel between these countries and other Schengen nations will no longer require passport control checks.

EU citizens will be able to freely enter Romania and Bulgaria through flights and marine routes.

The ETIAS visa waiver, launching in May 2025, will facilitate short-term entry for non-EU nationals.

For longer-term immigrants like digital nomads, students, and families, joining the Schengen zone represents a major milestone.

It will allow greater mobility and integrated residency options between Romania, Bulgaria, and other member states.

However, until full membership is achieved, land border crossings will still involve standard entry procedures.

The final shape of immigration policies will depend on the outcome of upcoming accession talks.

Impact on EU Immigration Policy

Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen progress will also influence broader EU immigration rules.

The ETIAS system in particular is designed around the integrated border management framework of the Schengen zone.

As new countries join, the EU must adjust visa-free access and screening tools accordingly.

The partial accession creates a transitional scenario for immigration control.

Austria and other states may demand tighter border security and immigration vetting as a condition for full Schengen integration.

This could shape EU-wide standards for immigration and border management.

The path to accession and associated policy changes will impact aspiring Schengen entrants across the Balkans.

It may also set precedents for dealing with immigration pressures along Europe’s external frontiers.

The Long Journey Ahead

Romania and Bulgaria's road to Schengen still faces challenges, but the recent developments demonstrate important progress.

After years of setbacks, partial accession for air and sea travel signals brighter prospects for the two Balkan nations.

However, the complex negotiations on land borders illustrate that full integration will require extensive discussions with Austria and increased EU support. The final outcome remains uncertain.

Nonetheless, Romania and Bulgaria have a strong motivation to overcome the upcoming hurdles.

Accession into these key EU initiatives will reap significant benefits for their economies and citizens.

The two countries are determined to achieve their long-awaited goals.