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The long and winding road to Schengen (enr)

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Every summer, tourists used to spend hours stuck in traffic jams on the border with Croatia. This will soon be a thing of the past. The Adriatic country is going to join the Schengen area without border controls as early as 2023. But for Bulgaria and Romania, the borderless dream has not come true yet, told Agerpres.

The world's largest free-travel zone has grown by one member. As of January 1, 2023, there will be 27 member states in the Schengen area, 23 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Croatia, its latest member, will join the Schengen area in less than a month. Border controls at land and sea crossings will be abolished at the beginning of the year, with airports to follow suit by the end of March 2023. With Croatia's entry into Schengen, the area is expanding for the first time in over ten years.

Existing Schengen members must unanimously approve the accession of a new member. The EU's interior ministers were to vote on December 8 on the expansion of the Schengen area to include three more countries: Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. But while the way for Croatia to join was cleared, there was no consensus on the vote on Romania and Bulgaria due to opposition from Austria and the Netherlands.

What is still keeping Romania and Bulgaria out of Schengen?

Efforts by Bulgaria and Romania to join have been stalled for more than a decade since the commission first deemed the countries Schengen-ready in 2011.

Austria's Chancellor Karl Nehammer recently made it clear that for him lifting border controls with Romania and Bulgaria was out of the question at present. The reason he gave was that too many unregistered migrants were currently arriving in Austria.

Dutch opposition is only directed at Bulgaria, partly because of concerns regarding the rule of law. The Dutch parliament adopted a resolution in October, saying further analysis of the functioning of the rule of law and of the pervasiveness of corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria was needed. Last week, the Netherlands' government decided that Bulgaria did not yet meet the conditions for joining the Schengen area. Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said it was too early to agree to Bulgaria's accession. However, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte held out the prospect of the country receiving approval next year.

Attempts to find a solution to the issue of Bulgaria's admission to Schengen would continue until the end of this and into the next year, Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev told Bulgarian journalists in Brussels on December 8.

'Bulgaria performed very well, the very conclusion of the European Commission and the reports and opinions showed that Bulgaria and Romania meet all the requirements for our admission to Schengen. The issue was political,' Demerdzhiev summarized. The deputy prime minister announced that efforts were expected to be continued by the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the EU from the beginning of next year. 'Nothing is lost, on the contrary, we are on the right track and have done what is expected of us,' he said.

'Specific dates have not been set, the talks are pending. Austria has made it clear that there are compromises it would accept. We also offer joint border outfits. We are ready for constructive solutions, as long as they are related to things that are useful for protecting the border. The Netherlands do not set such requirements, the dialogue is more difficult there, there is no constructivism in their position,' Demerdzhiev noted.

Romania's prime minister Nicolae Ciuca expressed his 'deep disappointment' at the 'lack of consensus' in Thursday's JHA Council on Romania's accession to Schengen and stressed that Austria's vote was unjustified. 'All European states except one have agreed to open to Romanians the gates of the Schengen area in recognition of our preparation, but also of the continuous efforts for years to protect Europe's external borders. Unanimity was not possible today, because only one member state, Austria, refused Romania's entry. (...) We sincerely regret it and we do not understand the inflexible position shown by Austria,' Nicolae Ciuca stated at the Victoria Palace on Thursday.

European Commission expresses regret for 'the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania'

The EU Commission recently certified that all three countries were meeting the necessary requirements for full Schengen accession. European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said that all three countries had done more than what was asked of them. He said that 'some small hesitations' that existed were of a political nature and based on the wrong assumption that with the extension of Schengen, there would be less control at the external borders. 'We are stronger, not weaker, through Schengen's enlargement,' Schinas told reporters ahead of the vote on December 8.

Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, welcomed Croatia to the Schengen area, expressing regret for the citizens of Romania and Bulgaria: 'Today marks a good day for citizens of Croatia - welcome to Schengen. To citizens of Bulgaria and Romania I say this: You fully deserve to be part of Schengen and I will support every step to achieve this in my mandate.'

Slovenia backs Croatia's accession

'We are happy that Croatia will join the Schengen area on 1 January. We expect that, as a member, it will meet its obligations regarding the protection of the Schengen border consistently,' Slovenia's Minister of the Interior Tatjana Bobnar told reporters. The Slovenian police has a strategy prepared based on which it will conduct oversight on the internal border and ensure safety of the Slovenian citizens as part of the 'compensatory measures', she said.

The mobile police units will place special emphasis on major road connections, railway and bus stations and other locations for which analyses will show an increased risk of illegal migration and cross-border crime.

Regarding the Croatian-Slovenian border dispute, Slovenia stressed in a unilateral statement that the border between the two countries, which had been set by the 2017 arbitration, was final and binding, and had to be respected. On December 8, Croatia adopted a unilateral statement of its own, saying the country was not bound by the arbitration, since procedural irregularities had been perpetrated by Slovenia, and that the border was yet to be determined.

Bosnia shares 1,000 kilometers of state border with Croatia.

Meanwhile, non-EU member Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which shares 1,000 kilometers of border with Croatia, expressed a different set of worries, namely that Croatia joining Schengen would impose particular challenges on BiH. However, rapporteur of the European Parliament Paulo Rangel from the European People's Party Group (EPP) said to the enr that Croatia's entry into the Schengen area is in the interest of Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to him, the abolition of internal border controls between the Schengen area and Croatia will in no way affect the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Instead, he added, it means that the European Union will move even closer to BiH, which was good for a country that was expecting to be granted candidate status for membership in the European Union as early as next week - and to one day become a member of the EU itself.

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