EU countries on Thursday (8 December) agreed that Croatia joins the passport-free Schengen zone — but still kept Bulgaria and Romania out, due to objections from Austria.
Vienna cited migration fears as the reason to block the two eastern European countries finally joining the Schengen zone.
“You deserve to be full members of Schengen, you deserve to have access to the free movement of the Schengen area, you had a strong support from almost all member states,” EU commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johnasson said, after the decision.
“I am also disappointed,” Johansson added, saying she had hoped that Bulgarian and Romania will become Schengen-members during the commission’s mandate which ends in 2024.
“When it comes to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, we are not united and that makes us very weak and makes me very sad,” she added.
“I am convinced their [Bulgaria and Romania] time come will soon,” Czech interior minister Vít Rakušan said.
Vienna argued that the number of illegal migrant arrivals passing through Romania and Bulgaria would have to fall for it to agree to the countries entry.
The decision to allow member states to join the zone requires unanimity.
“I cannot understand Austria’s position in this respect,” German interior minister Nancy Faeser told reporters ahead of talks with other ministers.
“I know that Austria has big domestic debates over the issue,” she added, saying Germany supports all three countries’ accession.
The Netherlands, which had previously opposed Romania’s Schengen bid, has now endorsed it. But it remains opposed to Bulgaria’s entry.
On Wednesday, Romania’s prime minister Nicolae Ciuca said his country had a legitimate expectation to join the open border Schengen area and rejected Austrian claims that it is a gateway for illegal migrants as unjustified.
“We all understand that the illegal immigration problem is politically sensitive in many member states, but blocking Romania from joining Schengen will not bring Austria the answers it wants,” Ciuca said.
Bulgaria’s interior minister, Ivan Demerdzhiev, after the meeting said Austria and the Netherlands did not name any particular concerns regarding Schengen.
“Austria does not have clear data from where these migrants are coming,” he said, adding that according to Bulgarian and commission data, migrants mainly come from Serbia.
Data from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, however, showed illegal migrants were mainly entering the bloc from the Western Balkans, not Romania.
The EU Commission last month said both Romania and Bulgaria, which have been EU members since 2007, met all Schengen requirements. The European Parliament also endorsed their inclusion into the zone.
The Schengen area currently includes 22 of the bloc’s 27 member countries as well as non-EU members Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland.