Romania and Bulgaria to Gradually Enter Schengen Area, a Milestone Achievement for the Region

In an eagerly awaited development, two Eastern European nations, Romania and Bulgaria, which officially became part of the European Union in 2007, are set to embark on a journey towards Schengen Area integration. After over a decade of persistent efforts, their long-cherished dream is finally becoming a reality. The process will commence with the opening of air and sea borders on March 31, and the subsequent progress will determine when land borders can be fully accessible.

Once Romania and Bulgaria successfully join the Schengen Area, they will leave Ireland and Cyprus as the sole European Union member states outside this border-free travel zone.

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, shared her elation on the decision in a post on a social platform, emphasizing the significance of this milestone for both Bulgaria and Romania. She stated, “Today marks a moment of great pride for Bulgaria and Romania. The decision to eliminate internal air and sea border controls with these nations represents a remarkable leap forward for both countries and for the Schengen Area as a whole.”

Established in 1995 with just ten countries, the Schengen Area has since expanded to encompass more than 1.5 million square miles, facilitating seamless movement for nearly 420 million people across 27 countries. It’s important to distinguish between the Schengen Area and the European Union; the former constitutes a travel zone where citizens can traverse national borders without the need for a passport or visa, while the latter represents a broader economic and political union of nations. Currently, the Schengen Area includes Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

According to the Council of the European Union, “Approximately 3.5 million individuals cross internal borders daily for work, education, or to visit loved ones, and nearly 1.7 million individuals reside in one Schengen country while working in another.” Membership in the Schengen Area not only saves citizens time and inconvenience associated with passport checks but also benefits travelers from 59 non-EU countries, including the United States, who can explore the Schengen Area for tourism and business purposes without the need for visas. However, changes are on the horizon in 2025 with the impending launch of the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), which will require travelers to register for ETIAS authorization to access the 27 Schengen member countries or risk being denied entry at the border.

Numerous prerequisites must be met by a country before gaining Schengen membership approval. As outlined by the Council of the European Union, these prerequisites include the enforcement of Schengen rules pertaining to border controls, visa issuance, police cooperation, and the protection of personal data, along with the effective management of external borders to prevent undocumented crossings.

The Council of the European Union asserts, “Countries seeking Schengen Area membership must undergo a series of evaluations to determine their compliance with the conditions stipulated by Schengen rules.” Once a member state satisfies these readiness requirements, the decision to admit them requires unanimous approval from all existing Schengen Area members after consultation with the European Parliament.

Croatia, the most recent addition to the Schengen Area, gained full access to open its borders to other Schengen Area countries on January 1, 2023, marking a significant milestone in its European integration journey.

While Romania and Bulgaria have long contended that they meet the necessary requirements, previous attempts were thwarted, with Austria playing a pivotal role in blocking their entry, citing concerns over illegal immigration. However, Austria has since softened its stance, paving the way for this historic achievement in the integration of the Schengen Area.