Wednesday, May 22, 2024
 
 

The Schengen Zone expands conditionally, for air and sea travelers

The new changes will have little impact on road transportation and border delays
Flickr
A Tarom plane, the flag carrier and oldest currently operating airline of Romania.

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Europe’s passport-free Schengen Zone took an important step forward on March 31 with the partial inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria. Travelers arriving in the Schengen Zone by air or sea from Romania and Bulgaria will not face border controls but critically, traffic at land borders is not included in the new system. Concerns from Schengen member Austria kept Romania and Bulgaria out of full Schengen Zone membership at this time.

Schengen Zone rules require unanimity on the question of admitting new members.

This is an old story. Austria has long been worried about massive waves of immigrants from outside Europe exploiting Schengen Zone rules and has been unwilling to concede its own border security to what it still believes are inadequate land border controls in Romania and Bulgaria. The major concern remains of course Bulgaria’s land border with Turkey, but also the Romanian and Bulgarian borders with Serbia are considered weaker than necessary especially in view of a pattern seen several years ago where immigrants from outside Europe took advantage of cheap flights to Serbia and then attempted to cross into the EU.

The Schengen Zone does not completely overlap with the European Union. Bulgaria and Romania are now partially included, while Ireland and Cyprus are the only EU countries that are not current Schengen participants. Non-EU countries Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein have already joined.

Schengen members must approve new applications

Bulgaria had previously been blocked by other Schengen members because of its failure to achieve satisfactory results in the fight against corruption and organized crime, a deep-rooted issue across most of Southeastern Europe that few countries have addressed with adequate success.

Romania has been under the same spotlight but was considered slightly more successful in its efforts.

The European Commission is considered an “easy pass,”  making its almost always positive recommendations regarding the Schengen Zone’s rules and members a non-factor in these matters.

Readers will likely have  already guessed that the European Commission and European Parliament are on the record as supporting admission of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen Zone; there are far too few cases of these organizations performing effective screening functions regarding rule of law and corruption, and there are also cases of the Commission pressuring member states to accept its assessments.

The European Council will still need to take a decision to establish a date for the lifting of checks at internal land borders between Bulgaria, Romania and the other Schengen countries, meaning full Schengen Zone membership. This did not stop the Commission from issuing a statement on March 30 strongly welcoming the two new Schengen Zone members, downplaying if not intentionally obscuring the fact that land border restrictions remain in place.

Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest, one of many in the region that have set up “Air Schengen” terminals

Economic barriers remain in place

The new changes will certainly make life easier for business travelers and some tourists, but the long delays faced by truckers at the Romania-Hungary border — the core of the Schengen Zone economic area — remain.

Truck drivers have long been pressuring their governments to secure document-free travel across land borders with their European neighbors. Romania’s main road transport union UNTRR, quoted in international media, has said the average wait at the Hungarian border was 16 hours.

“Romanian haulers have lost billions of euros every year, just because of long waiting times at borders,” Secretary General Radu Dinescu said.

Bulgarian businesses have also expressed their dismay, with Vasil Velev of the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association (BICA) pointing out that “only 3 percent of Bulgarian goods are transported by air and sea, the remaining 97 percent by land.”

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