21st Sep 2023


Let's end Bulgaria and Romania's 11-year Schengen purgatory

  • The process for joining the free travel area has turned into a recurring nightmare for Bulgaria and Romania — two countries on the EU's external border (Photo: wfbakker2)
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The Schengen area is undoubtedly one of the EU's greatest achievements. Unrestricted travel benefits millions of European citizens and businesses. But for Bulgaria and Romania, the EU has yet to make this borderless dream come true.

Quite the opposite, the process for joining the free travel area has turned into a recurring nightmare for two countries on the EU's external border.

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Last week marked 11 years since conservative-led governments vetoed Romania's and Bulgaria's application to join the Schengen zone.

Both Bulgaria and Romania have completed all stages of the evaluation process to join the passport-free bloc. This was part of the deal. However, despite repeated calls from the European Parliament, the process has been unacceptably delayed over years for reasons totally unrelated to the sustainable and responsible management of the EU's external borders.

Even though both countries put in the hard work to make sure they were ready for free movement, over a decade later, both countries are still waiting. Year after year, Sofia and Bucharest's efforts have been ignored.

Without any objective reason, Romania and Bulgaria have been kept waiting at the door for far too long. Patience has its limits. EU governments cannot go on betraying the EU's values of solidarity and cohesion.

Europe has come under pressure on multiple fronts in recent years.

First from the financial crisis, then the Covid-19 pandemic and most recently from Russia's war on Ukraine and the resulting effect of rising energy prices.

Countries at the EU's border with Ukraine have shown unprecedented levels of solidarity, dealing with an influx of refugees.

Populist double standards

Populist governments in the EU Council need to now drop the double standards and show the same spirit of solidarity.

Europe must recover together. We need to give member states the best chance at full recovery by using every means at our disposal. Allowing Romania and Bulgaria to join Schengen will boost economic activity, and can help more workers earn a better wage.

Being part of Schengen would remove border checks for passenger and road haulage vehicles and will reduce waiting times at the borders, leaving the days of long queues a distant memory.

The repercussions of any further postponement could be very costly, both in terms of security and the economy. Not only would the economic costs for being outside the Schengen area remain in place, but the risk of mistrust in the political will of the European Union to fulfil its political commitments would also increase.

Now Europe finds itself living in uncertain times. With war on Europe's borders, there are severe disruptions to supply chains. There is rising euroscepticism in all corners of Europe. There are far-right parties making their way into government in the likes of Sweden and Italy with the aim of ripping Europe apart.

At the same time, we have the opportunity to reinforce pro-European sentiment for a generation in Romania and Bulgaria. More broken promises will do the opposite.

Failure to ensure that all European citizens can benefit from free movement within Schengen fuels feelings of injustice and unfair treatment. Now is not the time to damage the EU's popularity or undermine public support for common European action.

Ultimately, the political price for this delay could be paid by pro-European forces. The EU's evergreen aim of reducing inequalities through cohesion policy is also widely undermined by the perpetual block to accession.

Now is the time to unite the EU, not to deepen dividing lines that should not exist in the first place. Germany's Social Democrat chancellor, Olaf Scholz, understands the need to focus on unity and recently publicly backed Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia becoming full members of Schengen.

That is why the socialists and democrats are working hard to refocus minds in the EU and put Schengen at the top of the agenda of the European Parliament this month.

We intend to use all our levers of democratic accountability and scrutiny to call on the member state governments to stop hiding behind different excuses and lift all the internal border controls with Bulgaria and Romania.

This European Parliament has a duty to represent all EU citizens in every corner of the bloc. We must keep up the pressure to remind EU leaders of their equal duty to ensure Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are living the dream sooner rather than later.

Author bio

Iratxe Garcia Perez is the president of the Socialist & Democrats group in the European parliament and a Spanish MEP. Petar Vitanov, is head of the S&D Bulgarian delegation. Dan Nica is the head of the S&D Romanian delegation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


Dismantling Schengen — six months at a time

Several EU countries have put in place almost permanent internal border controls, circumventing the Schengen Agreement on free movement. The EU Court of Justice declared such controls illegal. Now they are trying to loosen Schengen rules in Brussels negotiations.

Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, 'join Schengen' call by EU Parliament

The request was included in the European Parliament's annual report on the functioning of the Schengen area, and received overwhelming support from MEPs, with 505 votes for, 134 against, and 54 abstentions. The EU Commission has made a similar request.

UK taking 'steps' after illegal copying of EU Schengen data

According to a classified report, the UK made illegal copies of EU security data, and its disregard for EU rules on handling such data was a "serious and immediate risk". The Commission now says "practical steps" have since been taken.

Hurdles remain for Schengen hopefuls Bulgaria and Romania

The European Commission is mounting pressure for Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia to join passport free Schengen area. On Wednesday (16 November), it presented a 13-page document explaining why they should become part of the zone next January.

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