At the core of the European Union are the four freedoms - of movement of goods, capital, services, and people. These freedoms are epitomized by the Schengen area - an area without borders, passport controls, or customs. It is, along with the common European currency, the flagship policy of the European Union. It started in 1985 in the small Luxembourgish village of Schengen, where the creatively named Schengen agreement was signed between the Benelux countries, France and Germany, according to which these nations would agree on a common visa policy and the gradual abolishment of their internal borders. In 1990 the agreement was supplemented by the Schengen Convention and both went into force in 1995. During the 1997 Amsterdam conference all member states, apart from the UK and Ireland, signed them and created the so-called Schengen acquis- the criteria for countries to join the newly established Schengen area, as well as enshrining it into EU law. And so in 2023, the area encompasses 27 European states, both members and non-members of the EU, with a combined population of over 400 million people- an incredible achievement, considering the fact that less than a century prior, the entire European continent was tearing itself apart precisely because of these borders. And yet in 2023, there are four nations that are part of the European Union, but not of the Schengen area. These four nations are Ireland, which has an opt-out, Cyprus, which isn't fully compliant to the Schengen acquis yet, and Bulgaria and Romania. Those two nations are going to be the focus of this article.
Bulgaria's and Romania's modern histories share many similarities. Both were minor Axis powers, before being invaded by the Soviet Union and falling firmly under Moscow's thumb. But as the Iron Curtain fell, so did the communist regimes in both nations. The 90s were difficult and marred by economic collapse, political instability, corruption, and gang violence, however, the desire of both the population and government to reorientate themselves towards the West did not waiver. In 2004 both nations joined NATO and in 2005 the treaty of Accession of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU was signed, which went into force on the 1st of January 2007. The road to full European integration is not complete for either, as both nations are committed and obligated to join the Eurozone and the Schengen area.
The Schengen Area
Bulgaria and Romania completed the technical requirements outlined in the Schengen acquis for membership in 2011. At that point in time, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland were against the accession of both nations to the area due to concerns about corruption. It is important to note that Schengen enlargement requires unanimity among all member states. Sadly, those concerns were not unjustified as both Bulgaria and Romania were rocked by political and corruption scandals throughout the early 2010s, such as the fall of the Borisov 1 and Oresharski governments in 2013-2014 in Bulgaria and the Romanian constitutional crises of 2012. There has been some improvement on that front in both nations, albeit slow, and Bulgaria and Romania remain some of the worst-ranked in the EU on the corruption perception index. That being said, in Romania since 2014 there has been an anti-corruption drive spearheaded by Laura Kövesi, which would see thousands of current and ex-mayors, deputies, ministers, and even prime ministers get prosecuted for abuses of power and corruption. This progress would be overshadowed by the European migrant crisis of 2015 which led to the topic of Schengen accession for Bulgaria and Romania to lay dormant for the next couple of years. It would pop up in 2022, when Bulgaria and Romania, alongside Croatia, would apply once again to join the Schengen area. The common application would be supported by the European Parliament and accession was granted to Croatia, however, Bulgaria was vetoed by Austria and the Netherlands, while Romania was blocked only by Austria.
The Austrian and Dutch arguments are similar and centered on illegal migration. Accepting Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area would in theory mean that any refugees who manage to enter Greece from North Africa or Turkey, which are the most common routes taken by asylum seekers, would have a direct borderless route to Western Europe. The facts on the ground are slightly different, considering the fact many Schengen member states have temporarily reinstated border controls. Another problem with this argument is that many people, especially on the Bulgarian side, feel that the veto is counterproductive to Schengen security. Bulgaria currently has to invest money and personnel patrolling over 1000 km of border with Greece and Romania-money and personnel which can be redirected to the much shorter border with Turkey and thus greatly improve security for the whole European Union. This argument has been put forward by Bulgarian and Romanian politicians alike.
Another reason for the veto cited by the Netherlands is concern over corruption, especially in Bulgaria. Just last year, a massive scandal erupted concerning the ''Golden border"- Kapitan Andreevo, the largest border crossing in the European Union. It is situated on the Bulgarian border with Turkey and handles thousands of trucks, importing goods from all over Asia. Naturally, all those goods need to be examined for compliance with EU regulations. The private company, responsible for the phytosanitary control on the border, with the alleged backing of many politicians in power, would take bribes to forego these checks. This laboratory has since been nationalized, but the concerns over corruption remain
There was a major feeling of betrayal and indignance in Romania and Bulgaria. Bucharest threatened Austria with reciprocal action, like shutting down a common gas project in the Black Sea, recalling the Romanian ambassador from Vienna and even threatening legal action against the Federal Republic. According to calculations made by the Romanian government, the nation has missed out on a 2% GDP increase due to the delay in Schengen ascension. The reaction in Sofia was milder, primarily because of the state of permanent political crisis that has gripped Bulgaria since 2020. Nevertheless, almost all political parties in the country condemned this decision. Bulgaria and Romania were supported in their protests by the European Parliament and the European Commission, which have expressed continued support for accession. Despite all of this, lifting of the veto still doesn't look likely for either country, because accession is held hostage by "national-populist rhetoric" in Austria and the Netherlands, as stated by former Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov. Indeed, all of this was happening in the backdrop of the November parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, where there has been a surge of far-right anti-immigration sentiment. Many theorize that the veto of Bulgaria and Romania is simply a strategy, undertaken by the at that time incumbent governments of Austria and the Netherlands, to seem tough on migration. As a response to this, Romanian MEP Eugen Tomac proposed the creation of a mini-Schengen between Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania. His idea was met with widespread support among the Bulgarian and Romanian public, however as of the writing of this article it hasn't been implemented, primarily due to the chaotic state of Bulgarian politics.
After the surprising victory of the Dutch far-right party PVV in the election on the 22nd of November this year, Schengen membership for Romania and Bulgaria looks increasingly unlikely for the time being. There is a growing sentiment among Bulgarians and Romanians that they are being treated as second-hand Europeans, deemed unworthy to enjoy the same freedoms granted to everybody else in the Union. This feeling leaves many disillusioned with the European Union, leading to a surge in support of nationalist and populist political parties, which is ultimately harmful for the whole EU. Many Europeans, including myself, think that it is incredibly unfair for Bulgaria and Romania to miss out on the freedoms and economic boost, granted by Schengen membership, simply because of populist rhetoric in Austria and the Netherlands. Support for accession is still widespread in the two Balkan nations, and their incumbent governments have pledged to be fully integrated into the Schengen area as soon as possible.