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Romania and Bulgaria both joined the European Union in 2007 as member states. Since then, they have been impatiently awaiting to join the Schengen area. Romania and Bulgaria will be joining the Schengen area in March 2024, with a major catch. Passport controls will only be lifted at sea and air crossings. For the time being, land crossings will still be controlled. For Romania and Bulgaria, there is frustration as both nations have been considered by the European Union to be ready to fully join the Schengen area. The problem is that similar to EU membership, membership to the Schengen area must also be voted on unanimously by member states.
Unfortunately for Bulgaria and Romania, despite being considered prepared to join the Schengen area by the EU, several member states have had their own concerns. Austria is still concerned that allowing both nations to join will lead to a spike in people illegally immigrating to the European Union. The Netherlands has withdrawn its concerns, yet previously, the member state blocked Bulgaria from joining the Schengen area. People attempting to register for asylum are required to register in the nation they arrive in, but this does not always happen. Some people attempt to reach wealthier member states such as Austria, Germany, Sweden etc., in order to take advantage of more generous benefits than those in Southern EU member states such as Greece, Spain, and Italy.
On the European Commission website, a press release celebrates both member states partially joining the Schengen area starting in March 2024, as passport controls will no longer occur for those traveling by air or water. However, there is no deadline for when passport controls at land crossings will be eliminated. The statement does highlight that both nations have been prepared to join for years. In fact, the European Commission found both Bulgaria and Romania to have been ready to join the Schengen area as far back as 2011. This contrasts starkly against the Dutch government which pretended Bulgaria was not ready until recently based on fact finding missions. This however is not true. Sadly, the press release does not call out member states that have played a role in stopping either nations from joining. As Bulgarian Prime Minister Denkov pointed out in a speech to the European Parliament, Russia is trying to divide Europe, which makes integration of the EU even more important. This not only has made traveling more difficult for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens, but also for Schengen area citizens interested in traveling to both nations. This in turn hurts both nations economically and prevents them from economic convergence.
Double Standards in the EU
After it becomes clear that Austria is acting out of selfish concerns rather than making valid criticisms about the preparedness of Bulgaria and Romania to join the European Union, a contrast emerges. Poland and Hungary have faced rightful criticism in the past for blocking the EU budget due to consequences for democratic backsliding. However, there isn’t as much public outcry directed at Austria for unfairly penalizing Bulgaria and Romania, thus prolonging their wait to join the Schengen area.
While Austria did not pass controversial judicial reforms as Poland did, it continues to hold EU member states hostage. Bulgaria and Romania are required by law to join the Schengen area, yet Austria is at fault for both nations not joining sooner and now only partially joining. The Netherlands is also culpable for blocking Bulgaria. Both nations should have been criticised publicly for taking advantage of the unanimous vote to allow nations to join the Schengen area, particularly when they were considered to be prepared for over a decade. The European Greens criticised both nations in a blog post. However, over the years, it has been evident from media coverage that this critical view has not been the mainstream approach. This stance of rejecting Bulgaria and Romania’s admission to the Schengen area appears to lack a basis in data. Renew Europe also posted a brief blog post affirming that both nations should be part of the Schengen area. However, the post fails to mention the specific member states that have blocked their entry for years.
Impact of This Decision on Greece
Besides benefiting Romania and Bulgaria, Greece would also benefit from the inclusion of both nations in the Schengen area. This is due to the potential increase in goods arriving at Greek ports and then transported by truckers through Bulgaria and Romania to be delivered to other EU nations. However, as land checkpoints have not yet been eliminated, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania will unfortunately not yet benefit from a significant increase in the transportation of goods. As long as land borders are controlled, the same challenges for truckers to transport goods from Greece through Bulgaria and Romania will persist. The three nations announced the desire to connect themselves to one another by building a highway and railway which will be beneficial for the movement of not only goods but also people, yet as the land crossing restrictions remain, traveling this way would not be as quick as it could potentially be.
When considering the period after the migrant crisis in 2016, Greece emerges as an important member of the Schengen area. As Greece was the primary source of migrants back then, there were suggestions that Greece was allegedly not protecting the border but instead allowing migrants to travel through Greece to wealthier member states. The European Union made it clear that a member of the Schengen area can be punished. Greece was sanctioned for not upholding its duties, and the same could happen to Bulgaria and Romania if they are truly not ready.
While EU member states are right to be concerned about how to tackle illegal immigration to the EU, punishing Bulgaria and Romania is not the best solution. Instead the EU member states must continue to work together to stop illegal immigration rather than some member states such as Austria making decisions to protect themselves. Media coverage of this deal unfortunately shows double standards exist in the European Union. When Poland and Hungary are out of line they are rightfully criticised for it. When Austria and the Netherlands unfairly prevent two EU member states from fulfilling a legal obligation, neither nation faces significant backlash.
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