After being touted with Schengen membership for years, Bulgaria and Romania have finally received somewhat good news. As of March 2024, air and sea border controls will be lifted between the two Balkan countries and the Schengen area, however, no decision has yet been made on when land border controls will also be lifted.
1. Long awaited
From 31 March 2024, there will no longer be checks on persons at EU internal air and maritime borders between Bulgaria and Romania and the other countries in the Schengen area. This date corresponds with the change of the winter/summer schedule set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
“Bulgaria and Romania are ready to join the Schengen area. The Commission first confirmed that both Bulgaria and Romania were ready to become part of the Schengen area without internal border controls in 2011”, the European Commission said in a statement, welcoming the Council’s unanimous decision on the two countries’ partial ascension, while Council President, Charles Michael called it a “long awaited step”.
I am very pleased that in 2024 air and maritime internal controls between Bulgaria and Romania and the other Schengen countries will become a thing of the past, after 12 years of negotiations.Fernando Grande-Marlaska Gómez, Spanish Minister for the Interior
The Schengen area comprises 27 countries and extends over 4 million square kilometres with a population of almost 420 million people. With Romania and Bulgaria, the Schengen area will grow to 4.5 million square kilometres with a population of 450 million.
Discussions on a date for a possible lifting of the checks at land borders will continue in 2024 and a decision by the Council on this matter “is expected to be taken within a reasonable time frame”, the Commission said, however, reasonable time frames have been promised for years.
2. Partial membership
While this is a step forward, it is unprecedented in the history of Schengen expansion for countries to only partly join the free movement zone. Bulgaria and Romania both joined the EU in 2007 and the European Commission established in 2011 that the two countries meet the necessary requirements to be allowed to fully join Schengen. In 2022, amid discussions over Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia’s joining the area, the Commission re-issued a call on the Council, asking to it to “take the necessary decision to allow [the three countries] to become full Schengen Members.”
While Croatia only joined the EU in 2013, it became a full Schengen Member in 2023, with all land border checks lifted on 1 January and air border checks lifted in March, given the need for this to coincide with the dates of IATA’s summer/winter time schedule.
In the meantime, Bulgaria and Romania’s ascension had been vetoed by The Netherlands for several years and, most recently, by Austria, over worries the two countries would not sufficiently protect the Schengen area’s borders from migrants. According to the Financial Times, to nudge the Austrian government into a favourable decision, Romania threatened to sue it for several billion euros, as well as threatening to delay Austrian energy company OMV’s gas drilling project in the Black Sea.
Over the past few years, Austria has re-introduced land border controls with Hungary, Slovenia and Italy, in an increasingly observed move towards closing down rather than opening up, which has prompted worries that Schengen might be disappearing.