Romania and Bulgaria join Schengen Area after waiting 13 years

The European Union (EU) has finally given the green light to Romania and Bulgaria to join the Schengen Area, a zone of 27 European countries where people can travel freely without border checks.

The decision, which was announced on Saturday, December 30, 2023, came after Austria, the last country that opposed the measure, lifted its veto.

The accession of Romania and Bulgaria, which have been EU members since 2007, will be gradual. Starting from March 2024, there will be no more controls at the internal air and sea borders with these two countries. The date for the removal of controls at the internal land borders will be agreed later, after further discussions between Austria, Bulgaria and Romania.

The leaders of the EU institutions and the governments of Romania and Bulgaria celebrated the decision as a historic moment and a day of great pride for the citizens of the two countries, who will enjoy easier freedom of movement, security and economic development.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, praised the two countries for their “hard work, commitment and perseverance” in meeting the technical and legal criteria to join the Schengen Area. She also thanked Austria for its constructive approach and cooperation.

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, said that the decision “makes our Union stronger and our people safer”. He also expressed his hope that the Council will soon be able to decide on the abolition of controls at the land borders.

The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, noted that the decision “has taken a long time to arrive” but “is a testament to the resilience and determination of the Romanian and Bulgarian people”.

The Schengen Area was created in 1985 by the Schengen Agreement and started to operate in 1995 to eliminate the common borders between the participating countries and establish common controls at the external borders of those countries. In practice, the Schengen Area functions in terms of migration as a single country, with a common visa policy.

Not all EU member states are part of the Schengen Area, and not all Schengen Area countries are members of the EU. For example, Ireland and the United Kingdom have opted out of the Schengen Area (and few years ago, UK also opted out of the EU), while Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein are associated members of the Schengen Area but not members of the EU.

Romania and Bulgaria have been seeking to join the Schengen Area since they joined the EU in 2007. However, their accession was blocked by some EU member states, mainly Austria, due to concerns over corruption, organized crime, border security and the rule of law in the two countries.

After years of reforms and evaluations, the European Commission and the European Parliament confirmed that Romania and Bulgaria met the technical and legal criteria to join the Schengen Area and urged the Council of the EU to approve their accession.

The European Commission also initiated pilot projects with Romania and Bulgaria last March to enhance the management of external borders, strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries, and ensure the swift processing of asylum and return procedures.

The decision to let Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen Area is expected to have a positive social and economic impact on the entire region, facilitating the travels of millions of people and boosting trade and tourism.

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