‘Schengen grows! EU Council has decided to enlarge the Schengen Area to Bulgaria and Romania. Air and maritime internal borders will be lifted in March 2024, while a decision on the lifting of land controls will be taken later,’ the Spanish Presidency posted on X just hours before the end of 2023. Advancing the Schengen accession of Romania and Bulgaria is undoubtedly one of, if not the greatest achievement of the Spanish EU Presidency, which started in July.
After the Netherlands withdrew its long-held veto in mid-December last year, only Austria now stands in the way of full membership for the two Eastern European countries. However, recent news suggests that this obstacle is not far off. The Bulgarian government shared details of the agreement in a press release on Saturday, stating that the European Council is committed to lifting land border controls. Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu was also positive about further negotiations, expressing confidence that the land borders agreement would be concluded before the end of 2024.
The Schengen Convention, integral to the first and third pillars of the European Union, fundamentally abolishes internal border controls and establishes common external border controls. The Treaty, initially formed in 1985 among the five members of the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU, came into effect a decade later with the accession of Spain and Portugal. It was subsequently incorporated into the EU framework in 1997. Currently comprising 27 members, Hungary joined the free movement area in 2007, and the list of participating countries has expanded at the end of 2022, with Croatia being the latest addition.
Among the EU Member States, only Bulgaria and Romania are not part of the Schengen area.
Nevertheless, several non-EU countries, including Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, also benefit from the agreement.
Romania and Bulgaria are poised to benefit from the Schengen area for air and maritime transport and goods as well, starting from March 2024. Austria introduced the so-called ’Air Schengen’ concept, as Vienna couldn’t fully endorse the accession of the two countries. According to the compromise solution, passengers from Romania and Bulgaria would be exempted from passport controls at European airports, contingent on the two countries enhancing their border security measures. Austria has also conditioned its support on the European Commission tripling the funding for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) operations in Bulgaria.
Hungary has consistently advocated for the expansion of the Schengen area. The broadening of the Schengen zone, much like the enlargement of the European Union, is envisioned to fortify the involved parties, fostering increased integration and interconnectedness to address shared challenges more effectively. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó emphasized the significance of Romania joining the Schengen Area as a clear national interest for Hungary during his visit to Bucharest last November.
He added that Romania is the second-largest market for Hungarian exports, and the country's accession to the Schengen area would further tighten Hungarian-Romanian economic and trade relations.
Additionally, open borders would facilitate connections between the Hungarian community beyond the border and the mother country. Szijjártó also noted that this development would automatically result in the opening of ten new border crossings between neighbouring countries.
'The border will no longer divide but connect us,' Szijjártó stated.
Another important factor pushing for the swift full Schengen accession of the two countries is the rise in illegal migration and migratory pressure on Europe. In recent years, the Balkan route has emerged as one of the most frequented paths for migrants heading to the EU. Frontex reported 145,600 illegal border crossings from this route in 2022 alone, marking a 136-per-cent increase compared to 2021.
Expanding the external borders of the Schengen area could alleviate the burden on countries like Hungary, which find themselves on the front line of defence againts illegal migrants.
During a press conference in Budapest in 2022, Szijjártó commended Bucharest's excellent work on border surveillance. 'Thanks to this, Hungary can allocate more resources to protect the southern borders besieged by illegal immigrants,' the minister added. Strengthening and extending the Schengen borders, including the implementation of border fences, which may not be popular in Brussels, could significantly improve the effectiveness of deterring crowds attempting to reach Europe. Additionally, the process of deportations and returns could be executed more efficiently, as a safe third country under international refugee law would be closer at hand.
It is plausible that by this time next year, Romania and Bulgaria could attain full membership in the Schengen area, and Hungary may play a supportive role for these long-awaiting countries. Budapest is scheduled to assume the rotating EU presidency in July 2024, with preliminary plans prioritizing both the fight against illegal migration and the enlargement process.
In his previously mentioned press conference in Bucharest, Szijjártó stated that 'one of the primary goals of the Hungarian EU presidency will be to assist Romania in this regard.'
Hungary, having consistently and firmly addressed the 2015 migration crisis from its onset, can serve as an effective mediator between Vienna and Bucharest. This perspective aligns with Austria's call for enhanced border protection resources.
In recent years, Vienna and Budapest have demonstrated pragmatic and successful collaboration on various common interest issues.
The two countries are among the few EU Member States that have refrained from supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine, and have also cultivated a fruitful partnership with Serbia to curb illegal immigration. However, the ultimate decision on whether to meet Austria's demands rests not with Budapest, but with Brussels. The European Commission must agree to augment resources for border protection, a step it has been hesitant to take in recent years.