Bulgaria and Romania join air and sea Schengen area

Bulgaria and Romania join air and sea Schengen area
Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov and other top officials celebrate the lifting of air and sea borders at Sofia Airport. / government.bg
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia March 31, 2024

Bulgaria and Romania joined the Schengen border-free area on March 31 after years of waiting and repeated vetoes by Schengen members. However, the two countries are only admitted to the air and sea Schengen area, and it is not clear when they will be allowed to lift land borders with Schengen members. 

Despite that, accession to Schengen will bring Bulgaria and Romania significant advantages, particularly in tourism and trade. Starting March 31, EU citizens can travel to and from the two countries without passport checks, which is expected to save significant time and efforts.

It took the two countries quarter of century to get to this point with Bulgaria being granted visa-free travel before joining the EU – in 2000 – while Romania followed later, after fulfilling certain conditions.

“The [European] Commission strongly welcomes this achievement, which follows the historic Council decision of December 2023. The Schengen accession of these two Member States will make the common area more attractive by significantly expanding the world's largest common area without internal border controls,” the EC said in a statement on March 30.

“Tomorrow marks an important day: Bulgaria and Romania join the Schengen family. I welcome the lifting of internal air and sea border checks. This is a great success for both countries. And a historic moment for the Schengen area - the largest area of free movement in the world. Together, we are building a stronger, more united Europe for all our citizens,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on March 30.

Back in 2011, the EC confirmed in the Schengen Evaluation reports that Bulgaria and Romania had met all requirements to be fully part of the Schengen area. The lifting of air and sea borders was recommended by the EC several times but there was no consensus among Schengen members. The Netherlands has been blocking Bulgaria from joining Schengen for several years due to the lack of progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime, while Austria objected to the entry of the two countries over fears of more migrants being let in through Bulgaria and Romania.

According to the EC, since last December, the two countries have taken all necessary measures to ensure a smooth application of the Schengen rules as of March 31, 2024.

“The Cooperation Frameworks launched earlier this March by the Commission together with Bulgaria and Romania build on the successful implementation of the pilot projects for fast asylum and return procedures. With these Cooperation Frameworks, Romania and Bulgaria will further contribute to strengthening the cooperation on border and migration, as well as to the joint European efforts to address EU security at external borders and migratory challenges,” the EC noted.

A regional initiative on police cooperation was established between EU member states along the Western Balkan and Eastern Mediterranean routes, including Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, Greece, Hungary and Slovakia, which should address illegal migration issues and related cross-border crime.

A decision still has to be made on the date when the land border will be lifted.

In Bulgaria the full border lifting could be delayed due to the fresh political crisis and the forthcoming early general election, the sixth in a row. A caretaker government will be appointed for at least two months and it will not be able to make all necessary reforms to speed up the process.

Romania seems to have better chances for full lifting of borders as it has carried out the necessary reforms and is not undergoing a crisis.