In my first article on this topic, I outlined the process and opposition to Bulgaria and Romania accession into the Schengen area, and I predicted that membership was not likely in the near future. And yet I was almost immediately proven wrong. After a series of negotiations, Bulgaria and Romania will be partially admitted from the 31st of March 2024 into the Schengen area-border checks would be removed only for air and sea travel, however, they would remain for land travel. In this article, I will cover the negotiations, the concessions Bulgaria and Romania had to make, and the reaction in both nations.
The negotiations with Hungary and the Netherlands
I ended the last article with the surprising victory of the far-right PVV in the Dutch general elections and my concern that they would continue with the veto policy of Mark Rutte and his VVD party. Until the PVV or any other party could form a government, Mark Rutte would continue serving as prime minister of the Netherlands, and on the 16th of December, he would surprisingly announce that the Netherlands was no longer opposed to Schengen membership for Bulgaria and Romania, citing significant improvements in border control. However, another nation saw an opportunity to win concessions from Bulgaria and Romania-Hungary. In November 2023 Bulgaria tried to introduce a tax on the transit of Russian gas through its territory, which would grant an estimated 272 million Leva (roughly 136 million Euros) to Bulgaria’s treasury. This tax would impact primarily the nations most reliant on Russian energy in Europe - Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, and Serbia. Hungary threatened to veto Schengen accession for both Bulgaria and Romania if the tax was not scrapped, which the Bulgarian government promptly did. So the only nation left in opposition was Austria.
The negotiations with Austria
Austria remained firm on their veto stance throughout the whole negotiation process, even when faced with criticism from the European Parliament and the European Commission, which were both in favour of admitting fully Bulgaria and Romania. Spain was the host of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union between July and December 2023, and they had made EU expansion a priority, further supporting Bulgaria and Romania’s efforts. And yet, Austria remained strongly opposed to Bulgaria and Romania entering Land Schengen, citing concerns about illegal migration and a need to reform the institution of Schengen as a whole. After a series of negotiations, in the last days of 2023, Austria agreed on a compromise to let Bulgaria and Romania into the so-called Air and Sea Schengen, however, the Alpine nation refused to even discuss the removal of checks over land borders. As part of this compromise, the two eastern European countries will have to comply with 5 demands set out by Austria. They were first published by Romanian MEP Alin Mituta on Social media and are as follows:
At least a threefold increase in Frontex presence at the borders between Bulgaria and Serbia and Bulgaria and Turkey
A more intensive border control process between Bulgaria and Romania and Romania and Hungary
Possible random checks of travelers, coming from Bulgaria and Romania for an unspecified period
A commitment on the side of Bulgaria and Romania for further discussions of a Schengen reform in 2024
Faster acceptance of asylum seekers, as outlined by the Dublin agreement
The reaction to the partial acceptance of Bulgaria and Romania, as well as to these demands, was quite negative. For a start, there were questions about the legality of such partial ascension into the Schengen area, as well as the point of entering only Air and Sea Schengen. After all, although it might be nicer to avoid doing passport control at the airport and consequently pass through 10–15 minutes quicker, it really isn’t that significant in the grand scheme of things. The true strength of Schengen is the removal of land borders, which encourages trade and makes the flow of goods easier and cheaper, so many people in both Romania and Bulgaria were questioning if it’s even worth it to comply with Austria’s demands. There are even fears that the increased border control, which is part of these demands, will only make the waiting time at the land borders of Bulgaria and Romania longer.
However, none of these concerns were as widely discussed or controversial in Bulgaria. The real ‘’Apple of Discord” in Bulgaria was demand number 5 - some Austrian and Bulgarian newspapers reported that Bulgaria would not only have to process asylum seekers faster, but also accept around 6000 migrants from Syria and Afghanistan, who were first registered in Bulgaria, but subsequently made it to Austria. These reports were rubbished by Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, however, were quickly used by the opposition to further discredit the already unpopular deal that was made with the Alpine nation. In reality, there is indeed a clause in the Dublin agreement that allows Austria to send back an asylum seeker, who was first registered in Bulgaria, but subsequently made his way to Austria. However, this can only be done within 12 months of that asylum seeker’s arrival in Europe. According to the State Agency for Refugees at the Council of Ministers, only 113 migrants have been transferred back to Bulgaria in 2023 in compliance with the aforementioned clause of the Dublin agreement.
Why did Bulgaria accept the deal?
Although it was ultimately proven to be fake news, that Bulgaria would have to accept thousands of migrants, the agreement with Austria remains generally unpopular and is seen as almost a national insult. Many people would rather wait a bit longer at the airport than have Bulgaria being pushed around and discriminated against on the international stage. The answer to Bulgaria’s enthusiastic acceptance of Austria’s terms lies in its bizarre non-coalition coalition government between GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) and PP-DB (We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria). GERB, led by Boyko Borisov(pictured on the right), has been the dominant force in Bulgarian politics since 2009 and retains generally high levels of support in the countryside, primarily due to the very successful man of the people persona of party chairman Boyko Borisov. They were in power for most of the 2010s and were implicated in numerous corruption and criminal scandals.
They are generally disliked by urban voters, especially in Sofia, which has led to the creation of numerous, so-called “parties of the change”, that oppose Borisov. PP-DB is a coalition of two such parties, with PP being created in 2021 by Harvard graduates Asen Vasilev and Kiril Petkov with the specific aim of taking down GERB. However, both parties would end up in a stalemate and cause a deadlock in Bulgarian politics. There were a staggering 5 parliamentary elections between 2021 and 2023 with neither party being able to gather enough support to form a government( apart from the very brief Petkov government, which lasted less than a year). Ultimately, both parties agreed to work together to end the crisis. This move was very unpopular, especially for PP-DB voters, who saw this decision as a betrayal. PP-DB rationalized the decision as the only way to get Bulgaria into the Schengen and the Euro zones, as well as combat Russian influence. Another quirk of this agreement is a rotating prime minister-for the first year of the term Nikolai Denkov from We Continue the Change will serve as the Head of Government, before switching to Maria Gabriel from GERB. With the rotation fast approaching, PP-DB were desperate to both fulfill their promise and not allow GERB to get the political benefits for getting the nation into the Schengen area, so they made this compromise with Austria, even though it has proven to be quite controversial.
I, like many other Bulgarians and Romanians, find this agreement quite insulting and almost xenophobic. Both nations have been EU members since 2007, compliant with the Schengen acquis since 2011, and yet are forced to jump through all sorts of hoops, just to receive the same treatment as any other EU nation. For comparison, Croatia became a member of the EU in 2013, completed all requirements for Schengen membership in 2021, and was almost immediately let in without any demands, conditions, or obstacles. Are Bulgarians and Romanians any less European than Croats or any other nationality in the EU? Why are we being treated differently and held hostage by domestic Austrian politics? I truly hope that Bulgaria and Romania will become full Schengen members as soon as possible, however, I fear that while the conservative ÖVP remains in power, that won't happen.