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Bulgaria Gains Partial Schengen Access Via Air And Sea: What Does It Mean?
After more than a decade of anticipation, Bulgaria, together with Romania, has finally gained entry into the Schengen area. However, the initial approval, effective from March 2024, is limited to air and sea routes exclusively. This development signifies the end of passport checks for flights connecting Bulgaria to the broader European landscape, promising smoother travel processes.
The Council of the European Union, following a prolonged evaluation of their compliance, granted Schengen membership to Bulgaria and Romania on December 30, 2023, confirming their alignment with criteria established 12 years ago by the European Commission. Yet, despite this milestone, the relaxation of border checks currently applies solely to air and sea routes, leaving intact the land border controls within the Schengen zone.
Barriers raised by Austria and the Netherlands had previously obstructed Bulgaria's Schengen aspirations, leading to delays in the full integration of Sofia and Bucharest. However, in December 2023, both countries withdrew their objections, with Austria imposing specific conditions for the eventual removal of land border controls.
The long-awaited accession of Bulgaria into the Schengen sphere prompts discussions on the practical implications and the conditions set forth by Austria, particularly regarding the complete abolition of border controls, specifically at land crossings.
What is Schengen and why is it important?
The Schengen Area refers to a zone comprising 27 European countries (4 of which are non-EU members: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) that have abolished passport and other types of border controls at their mutual borders, essentially functioning as a single entity with no internal border checks. This zone promotes the free and unrestricted movement of people within its member states.
Named after the town in Luxembourg where the initial agreement was signed in 1985, the Schengen Area allows travelers to move between participating countries without needing a passport or undergoing border checks. This facilitates easier travel for both business and leisure purposes, boosting tourism, trade, and economic interactions among member states.
The significance of the Schengen Area lies in several key aspects:
- Freedom of Movement
- Economic Benefits
- Security Collaboration
- Harmonized Policies
Of the four EU members that are not part of the Schengen Area, three — Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania — are legally obligated to join the area in the future. Ireland maintains an opt-out, and instead operates its own visa policy.
Positives and negatives of joining Schengen
Joining the Schengen Area comes with several positives and negatives:
- Freedom of Movement: Member countries benefit from unrestricted travel within the Schengen Zone. This facilitates easier movement for tourists, workers, students, and business professionals among participating countries without needing separate visas or facing border checks.
- Economic Advantages: Being part of the Schengen Area promotes trade, as it streamlines the movement of goods and services across borders, contributing to economic growth and a more efficient internal market.
- Tourism and Cultural Exchange: Schengen membership encourages tourism, enabling travelers to explore multiple countries without encountering border controls. It promotes cultural exchange and boosts the tourism industry within member states.
- Enhanced Security Cooperation: Despite the absence of internal border controls, Schengen countries collaborate closely on security matters. They share information, coordinate law enforcement efforts, and engage in joint measures to combat crime and terrorism.
- Border Management Challenges: Joining the Schengen Area requires adhering to strict external border controls. Member countries need to ensure robust border security to manage the flow of people entering the zone, which could be logistically challenging and expensive.
- Increased Migration Pressures: Member countries may face challenges in managing migration flows, especially if there's a sudden influx of migrants or asylum seekers. This can strain resources and administrative capacities.
- Potential Security Risks: While there's enhanced cooperation on security matters, the absence of internal border controls could be exploited by criminals or terrorists to move freely within the Schengen Zone, posing security risks that need careful management and coordination among member states.
- Loss of Sovereignty: Joining the Schengen Area requires relinquishing some aspects of national control over borders, as decisions about border management become more collective. This might lead to concerns about losing national sovereignty in managing immigration policies.
Is Bulgaria a Schengen member?
At present, Bulgaria's entry into the Schengen Area is pending final implementation despite being accepted as a member state. Both Bulgaria and Romania have met the necessary Schengen requirements, as confirmed by the Council of the European Union on December 30, 2023.
The acceptance, however, comes with a staggered approach. Initially, the focus will be on opening air and sea borders, effective from March 31, 2024, with plans for subsequent relaxations at land borders. This phased strategy mirrors Austria's accession to Schengen, where border checks were gradually lifted after signing the agreement in 1995.
For Bulgaria, the initial phase will waive passport checks at select international airports (Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, and Varna) and ports (Varna and Burgas) for travel to and from other Schengen countries. Yet, there's uncertainty about whether the relaxation will extend to ports along the Danube river.
When is Bulgaria actually joining the free area?
Bulgaria and Romania are set to enter the Schengen area in March 2024. The Council's decision stipulates this move to occur on March 31, pending the International Air Transport Association's (IATA) seasonal schedule change that aligns with airlines' introduction of their summer schedule on March 24.
As for the specific date for land border acceptance, it remains unspecified thus far. Nonetheless, an additional agreement involving Bulgaria, Romania, and Austria commits to initiating discussions in 2024 regarding the removal of controls at land borders.
However, the forthcoming date hinges upon meeting the conditions outlined in the document.
What is ‘air Schengen’?
The term "air Schengen" informally refers to the lighter border control specifically for air travel. In essence, this implies that travelers flying to and from Bulgaria and Schengen countries won't need to wait in passport queues.
This adjustment means that when flying between Bulgaria, Romania, and other countries within this zone, the verification of personal documents will be waived. However, it's important to note that security checks at airports, including luggage screening, will still be conducted.
This change primarily benefits tourists, as Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov highlighted, emphasizing the increased convenience it will offer.
This concept of an "air Schengen" suggests a partial level of membership within the border control-free zone, which currently encompasses 27 member states. Yet, it's essential to recognize that Bulgaria and Romania won't attain official Schengen membership, and land borders will maintain their current status.
As per the Schengen Borders Code, individuals traveling to or from Schengen area countries are typically exempt from passport control.
Starting in March, Bulgaria will need to ensure that airport operators separate passenger flows for domestic flights and those involving travel to and from third countries like Turkey or Great Britain. Passport checks for these flights will still occur at departure and arrival points.
For connecting flights bound for third countries but initially passing through a Schengen country, passport checks will take place at the Schengen entry or exit point, as well as in the third country.
For instance, if someone travels from Sofia to Tirana with a layover in Rome, they'll undergo passport checks before boarding the connecting flight in Rome and upon arrival in Tirana.
What does this mean for the Bulgarian economy?
This situation maintains unresolved issues at land border crossings, particularly the persistent problem of lengthy queues. Prime Minister Denkov highlights its impact, particularly on businesses, not only within Bulgaria but also beyond.
The exclusion of Bulgaria and Romania from the Schengen area directly affects their economies. Prime Minister Marcel Călăcu of Romania stated that his country suffered an economic loss of up to 2% of its output due to the prolonged wait to join the zone, amounting to an estimated damage of approximately 5.5 billion euros.
Experts emphasize that the concept of "air Schengen" doesn't address these economic challenges. Associate Professor Ognyan Minchev pointed out in an interview that entry into the Schengen Area solely via air won't significantly benefit Bulgaria's economy. While seen as positive news for individual travel, it won't alleviate issues concerning business trips, transport for commerce, and border queues.
Political scientist Lyubomir Stefanov views this development as a positive but considers it just a fraction of Bulgaria's overall integration process into the Schengen area, emphasizing that much more remains to be accomplished.
What is ‘sea Schengen’?
“Sea Schengen” refers to the relaxed border controls specifically applied to sea travel within the Schengen Area. Similar to "air Schengen," this term represents the streamlined procedures for travelers sailing to and from Schengen member countries, eliminating the need for extensive passport checks or queuing for document verifications.
When voyaging by sea between Schengen countries, individuals may experience fewer border checks for personal documents. However, it's essential to note that security measures at seaports, including scrutiny of luggage and other safety protocols, remain in place.
The exact impact of Schengen on Bulgaria's maritime borders hasn't been explicitly outlined by the government. According to the Schengen Borders Code, individuals aboard ships remaining within Schengen borders typically won't undergo systematic border checks. Similarly, cargo vessels passing through Schengen ports without stopping in third countries also avoid checks.
However, inspections occur only if there are genuine security concerns within the country, marking the sole instance when checks are implemented for maritime travel within the Schengen Area.
Why partial Schengen and why now?
Last year (2023), the Netherlands and Austria used their veto power to block Bulgaria's Schengen entry, citing concerns related to securing external borders. Vienna specifically raised issues about the persistently high levels of illegal immigration, expressing the need for more stringent measures to address this.
Austria's ruling People's Party (ÖVP) has long prioritized combating illegal immigration in its political agenda, with the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2024 making this an even more pressing issue. Opinion polls indicate significant support for the far-right Freedom Party, which shares similar views on migration.
Bulgaria and Romania have been striving for Schengen membership for years, meeting all the requirements as repeatedly confirmed by the European Commission. However, the admission of new Schengen members necessitates unanimous approval from all existing member states.
Interestingly, there's a historical parallel in Austria's own accession to Schengen. During Austria's bid for border-free status, Bavaria objected, arguing that Austria lacked adequate protection for the EU's eastern and Balkan borders.
A solution was eventually reached through a phased approach to border control removal. Austria joined Schengen, gradually eliminating air border controls by December 1, 1997, and land border controls by April 1, 1998, despite initial objections.
What conditions has Austria set for opening the land borders?
Austria's additional agreement with Romania and Bulgaria outlines five conditions primarily focused on bolstering the Schengen Area's external borders. The primary objective is to diminish the influx of migrants into Western Europe, a key factor behind Austria's previous blockade of Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen membership.
As per the agreement, there will be an escalation in the presence of the European border service "Frontex" along the Bulgarian-Turkish and Bulgarian-Serbian borders. The European Commission will offer financial support to fortify border control in both Romania and Bulgaria.
Furthermore, there's a directive to intensify checks at the borders between Bulgaria and Romania and Romania and Hungary, aiming once again to reduce migrant flows into Western Europe. Another condition necessitates the "prompt and diligent" implementation of the Dublin Regulation, sparking speculation that Bulgaria might need to accommodate more refugees from Western Europe.
The Dublin Regulation stipulates that asylum seekers cannot choose the country where they receive protection but are directed to the EU nation where they were initially registered. Thus, Bulgaria must contribute to the repatriation of refugees registered on its soil who subsequently moved to another European country—a practice established for several years.
Additionally, Austria requires the placement of document advisors on relevant flights at airports in Bulgaria and Romania. Moreover, sporadic spot checks upon arrival in Austria are mandated, intended to be irregular rather than routine.
There is currently no set timetable for the implementation of the measures requested by Austria. From several statements by Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, it became clear that negotiations on the matter will continue this year.
However, according to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Vienna's proposal is a "negotiating position, not a final result". He categorically explained that Sofia would not agree to one of the Austrian conditions - that of accepting more migrants from Syria and Afghanistan.
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