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– Luis L. , Universidad Complutense of Madrid. 
Paper presented as part of the Blue Europe 2021 Contest “Conrad Adenauer e Alcide de Gasperi”
Review by Henrique Horta.

The concept of free movement between European countries is quite ancient, dating all the way back to the middle ages. Whereas in modern times, this notion has been debated since since Europe faced devastation as a result of the Second World War. However, tangible measures in this direction occurred only during the 1980s, when Europe was mired in an endless argument between two opposing factions: one that supported the idea of a free Europe with no internal border checks between countries, and the other that was adamantly opposed.

France and Germany were the two pioneering countries to take the first real measures toward advancing the free movement notion, as they unanimously agreed to take this much-debated concept to the next level. On 17 June 1984, these two countries were the first to bring up the aforementioned subject during the European Council meeting in Fontainebleau, when they unanimously agreed to specify the necessary criteria for citizens’ free movement.

As a conclusion to this voyage, what became known as “The Schengen Agreement” – covering the progressive abolition of internal borders between countries and the enlargement of external border control – was only signed on 14 June 1985. The Agreement was signed in Schengen, a little village on the Moselle river in southern Luxemburg, by the five (5) European countries listed below: France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

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14 June 1985 – signing the Schengen Agreement: Catherine Lalumière (France), Waldemar Schreckenberger (Germany), Paul De Keersmaeker (Belgium), Robert Goebbels (Luxemburg) & Wim van Eekelen (Netherland).

On 19 June 1990, five years later, a Convention for the concrete implementation of the Schengen Agreement was agreed. This convention addressed issues such as the elimination of internal border controls, the definition of procedures for issuing a uniform visa, the operation of a single database for all members dubbed the SIS – Schengen Information System, and the establishment of a cooperating structure between internal and immigration officers.

Thus, the Schengen Area concept continued to expand, with Italy joining on 27 November 1990, Portugal and Spain joining on 25 June 1991, and Greece joining on 6 November 1992.

Despite the fact that the Schengen Agreement – including treaties and rules – was established, the Schengen Area’s actual implementation began on 26 March 1995, when seven Schengen member countries – France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain – decided to abolish internal border controls.

Since then, the Schengen Area has experienced rapid growth and expansion. Thus, on 28 April 1995, Austria joined, and on 19 December 1996, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden joined. On the other hand, following the lead of a sample of seven of the aforementioned nations, Italy and Austria abolished internal border restrictions in October and December 1997, respectively.

Another significant achievement of the Schengen Agreement occurred in May 1999, when “The Treaty of Amsterdam” incorporated the agreement into the legal framework of the European Union, whereas previously, the Schengen treaties and rules established by the agreement were not part of the EU and operated independently.

The Schengen Area’s expansion continued apace, with Greece joining in January 2000 and Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway joining in March 2001. On 16 April 2003, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined, followed by Switzerland in October 2004. This successful narrative did not end there, as the same states declared the abolition of their land and sea borders in December 2007 and of their airport border restrictions in March 2008.

Liechtenstein became the 26th and final country to ratify the Schengen Agreement and join the Schengen Area in February 2008.

Switzerland abolished land border controls in December 2008 and airport border controls in March 2009.

The most recent significant event in the implementation of the Schengen Agreement occurred in December 2011, when Liechtenstein declared the abolition of its internal border controls three years after signing the Schengen Agreement.

Potential Schengen Area members

Being a member state of the European Union (EU) is inextricably linked to membership in the Schengen Area, despite the fact that this is a legally required step. The bulk of the following EU member countries have been afflicted by unsolved political concerns, resulting in their exclusion from the Schengen Area.

As is the case with Cyprus, which has been a member of the EU since 2004 but has not yet joined the Schengen Area, the Schengen Agreement cannot be signed until the island’s conflict as a de facto divided island and related political issues are resolved. Outside of the EU, the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia will require additional processing and mechanisms until they can join the area.

Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen Area applications were accepted by the European Parliament in June 2011 but rejected by the Council of Ministers in September 2011, with the Dutch and Finnish governments citing concerns over anti-corruption measures and efforts to combat organized crime.

Similarly, Bulgaria and Romania are the following two (2) EU nations since 2007 that are not Schengen Area members or have not yet signed the Schengen Agreement. These countries submitted a request to join the Schengen Area, which was approved by the European Parliament in June 2011, but was rejected by the Council of Ministers in September 2011, as Finland and Germany expressed concern about these countries’ inability to enforce anti-corruption and anti-crime mechanisms, as well as about the illegal entry of Turkish citizens from these countries into the Schengen Area.

Croatia is the next Schengen Area candidate country to sign the Schengen Agreement. Despite joining the EU on 1 July 2013, the country has not yet been admitted to the zone. As of March 2015, the country had signaled its readiness to join and is currently undergoing a technical evaluation that began on 1 July 2015 and is slated to conclude in July 2016. On the other hand, the illegal entries resulting from the 2015 migration influx from Greece through North Macedonia and Serbia to Croatia on their way to Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary as Schengen member countries have raised numerous concerns about the area’s sustainability and, in particular, its future enlargement in this environment. Additionally, because the country was coping with a high volume of illegal entries via the Croatian border, Hungary stated that it could be the one to vote against Croatia’s Schengen Area entrance.

On March 25, 2021, truck wait times between European Union member states were between ten and thirty minutes, with many crossings reporting no delays at all as hauliers did their pan-European trade at 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening.

Given that all but three of the bloc’s member states are Schengen members, which allows for unfettered travel throughout the EU, the lack of delays was not surprising. However, waiting times between Hungary and Romania, both of which are EU members, were between 30 minutes and an hour.

Queues were already more than seven kilometers long and expanding at the Nagylak-Nadlac crossing point in western Romania, according to an interactive map used by hauliers.

Although Romania joined the EU in 2007, it is not a Schengen member, which means that the delays at the country’s border with Hungary on March 25 were regular – if not particularly quick. Delays at border crossing locations between the two countries are frequently measured in hours, if not days.

In 2019, lineups between the two countries lasted nearly a week following a public holiday.

“Despite the fact that it is a single point of entry and exit, the control of passengers leaving Romania and entering Hungary is carried out by the authorities of both countries, and sometimes each authority has a different control objective, resulting in extremely long queues,” Radu Dinescu, president of the National Union of Romanian Hauliers, explained.

Dinescu told Euronews that long meant between 20 and 30 kilometers into Romania from the Hungary border. Even when everything goes smoothly, he claimed, lineups can be between eight and ten kilometers long at certain times of the week, equating to between four and ten hours of waiting time for truckers. These delays have been exacerbated further by the COVID-19 outbreak.

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An extension of the Zone ‘Close to impossible’

This makes it nearly hard for truckers to adhere to European rest regulations, which require them to take a 45-minute break every four hours and ten minutes of driving. If they do not comply and are apprehended by Romanian or Hungarian authorities, they may face a fine.

“Waiting 10 hours while moving the vehicle every 10 to 15 minutes makes following the rules nearly hard,” he explained.

It’s been ten years since negotiations began over Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, and its goal of achieving borderless trade with its European neighbors. It is in the same boat as Croatia and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2013 and 2007 but have not yet joined Schengen. Bulgaria’s border with Greece, as well as Croatia’s with Slovenia, are also experiencing significant delays.

Romania’s former prime minister, Florin Citu, stated during a press conference last month that he believed Romania will join Europe’s Schengen free trade zone by 2024.

Citu reported that the issue is Romania’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report on corruption, which was originally scheduled for publication in 2020 but has been delayed until 2021. Citu anticipated that if the outcome is favorable, Schengen talks will begin this year.

“There is a debate over the CVM report. This year, we must address this issue. We will do everything possible to obtain a favorable CVM report,” he stated. “If everything goes well and we receive a favorable report, we can hope to resume Schengen admission negotiations.”

While Citu felt that the CVM report is necessary for Romania’s entry to the EU’s borderless economic zone, the European Commission told Euronews that the two concerns are unrelated. According to the Commission, Romania is ready to join Schengen immediately.

“The Commission has advocated for Romania’s Schengen admission since […] 2011 and urges on the [European] Council to take a good decision on internal border restrictions,” a Commission official told Euronews.

“Some have equated the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism with politics. The Commission makes no such connection.”

Dutch umbrage to any ratification

The European Council’s resolution is subject to ratification by all 27 member states. That vote has not been scheduled, and Romania’s accession to Schengen has not even been on the formal agenda of the council since 2015.

Additionally, it is widely known that the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, is publicly opposed to Romania entering Schengen without making significant progress in the fight against corruption and the rule of law. Citu stated earlier this year that he spoke with Rutte but did not specify if he remained opposed.

“We examined the prospective opportunities for collaboration between Romania and the Netherlands, with a particular emphasis on enhancing economic ties and political communication. “I stated categorically that Romania is completely prepared to join the Schengen area,” Citu stated.

A vote to admit a nation to Schengen must be unanimous, and given that Rutte has not published his side of the talk with Citu, it is unclear whether the Netherlands’ concerns about corruption in Romania have been assuaged sufficiently to rescind its position.

Competition theory, is it really just a business thing?

While the Dutch have cited corruption as the reason Romania has not yet entered the Schengen zone, many Romanians believe the Netherlands is concerned about competition from Romania’s port at Constanta, given the Dutch port at Rotterdam’s dominance of European shipping commerce.

Constanta, located on Romania’s Black Sea coast, has the potential to displace trade from northern European ports due to its proximity to markets in the Middle East and Asia.

“Locally, there are rumours about several EU member states’ political and economic interests colluding against their agreement to admit Romania to Schengen,” Dinescu explained.

However, the president of the National Union of Romanian Hauliers stated that Schengen accession was simply one of numerous concerns confronting Romania – which the government is failing to handle. Hungary has made significant steps toward improving its road infrastructure, he noted, whereas Romania has not.

“This is a domestic problem, regardless of how much Romanian politicians wish to blame third parties,” he stated.

“The main line is that Hungary has a substantially stronger administrative capacity and more coordinated governmental structures, as well as the potential to make bold decisions and carry them through, whereas Romania is fairly weak in this regard.”

‘Expansion weariness’

Despite these structural flaws, he believes that if Romania were to join Schengen, the situation for Romanian hauliers would undoubtedly improve – and not just in terms of waiting periods. Not only would the voyage be less stressful for drivers, but it would also attract more foreign direct investment, strengthening and competitiveness of the country’s economy, he claimed.

Despite Citu’s optimism in February, analysts say that the COVID-19 pandemic – which has forced the reintroduction of border checks at the majority of Europe’s borders – and widespread hostility toward open borders in Europe, particularly from French President Emmanuel Macron – suggest that Romania joining Schengen in the near future may be a long shot.

“Without blaming Romania’s critics, we must acknowledge that the EU is also experiencing enlargement fatigue, which extends beyond the admission of new members to include the “enlargement” of the Schengen Area and the Eurozone to include the “newer” EU members,” political analyst Radu Magdin told Euronews.

“Thus, while objective technical criteria should condition EU member states’ Schengen or Eurozone membership prospects, the EU must also define its strategic objectives for a difficult future and view additional integration potential through more pragmatic lenses,” he added.

And, outside from those sectors directly impacted, such as hauliers, Magdin noted that, prior to Citu’s February statements, “this subject has been infrequently discussed in the public sphere in recent years.” With the closure of borders across the continent as a result of COVID-19, this appears to be a “far-reaching objective.”

“It is also a less pressing issue for Romanians. The free movement of people and products across the EU has shown to be less resilient in the face of the pandemic,” he said.

“Even if Romania joins the Schengen Area this year or in the future, what is critical right now is that Romania participates in debates about enhancing free movement within the EU.”

The European Commission has also released a package of measures aimed at enhancing the functioning of the Schengen free travel zone, including a demand that EU member states expedite the accession of Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus.

“The strategy… demands for the completion of Schengen area enlargement so that Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Cyprus can fully benefit from Schengen,” the strategy document, titled ‘Towards a Stronger and More Resilient Schengen Area,’ stated.

The European Council decides on EU states’ accession to Schengen and requires the unanimous agreement of all EU governments.

The Commission urged the European Council to “decide on the easing of controls on Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia and their accession to Schengen.”

Bulgaria and Romania, it stated, “completed the requisite evaluation effectively in 2010 and 2011.”

Additionally, the Commission stated that it certified in October 2019 that Croatia “had taken the necessary measures” to comply with the border-free zone’s requirements, particularly those regarding external border control.

“A more inclusive Schengen region will strengthen the EU’s overall security while also meeting these nations’ genuine expectation… to join Schengen,” the Commission wrote.

Additionally, it stated that Schengen expansion was a means of “reinforcing mutual confidence” among EU states.

Additionally, the Commission demanded that Cyprus receive the same treatment “after it has completed the required evaluation.”

It has been stated that such flaws could jeopardize Bucharest’s and Bulgaria’s capacity to carry out Schengen member duties such as external border controls.

Despite joining the EU much later, in 2013, Croatia is reported to be closer to joining the continent’s free travel club, since EU countries and European authorities have acknowledged Croatia’s progress toward achieving the admission criteria.

According to the European Parliament, Romania and Bulgaria should be granted full membership in the passport-free Schengen zone.

The request was incorporated into the European Parliament’s yearly report on the Schengen area’s functioning.

Croatia also meets all technical conditions for membership in the controls-free travel region, according to that report, which got overwhelming support from MEPs (505 votes in favor, 134 against, and 54 abstentions).

“Further to its numerous requests for full application of the Schengen acquis in Bulgaria and Romania, urges the Council to honor its commitment and take an immediate decision on the abolition of checks at internal land, sea, and air borders, thereby allowing those member states to join the Schengen area of free movement without internal border controls; is prepared, upon consultation with the council in accordance with Article 4 of the Act of Accession.”

The EU Commission made a similar call earlier this month, when it proposed a strategy for a stronger and more resilient Schengen zone.

The final decision on Schengen zone entry is more political in nature and must be unanimously agreed upon by all members of the European Council, the EU body composed of the heads of state or government of all EU member nations.

This often occurs after the commission has scrutinized specific technical requirements and the parliament has given the procedure its blessing.

When will Bulgaria join the Schengen Area?

During a November 2018 visit to Bucharest, Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament at the time, indicated his desire to speed Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen accession process.

In the same month, Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party’s presidential candidate for the European Commission, stated that Bulgaria would join the Schengen Area in 2019, at least partially.

That objective has not been accomplished.

Later in the interview, Weber expressed reservations about Romania joining Schengen in 2021 alongside Bulgaria, as previously anticipated. Although Romania has met the technical requirements for Schengen border security, the latest European Commission report criticized the country for not doing enough to combat corruption. However, the same assessment lauded Bulgaria’s progress toward meeting Schengen’s technical requirements.

However, the European Parliament voted in December 2018 in favor of accepting both countries, requiring the European Union’s Council to “move rapidly” on the topic.

Croatia’s Schengen Area application has been under discussion by the European Commission for some years and appears set to become a reality in the later half of 2024. According to Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovi, the country will also join the Eurozone as it prepares to convert from the kune to euros after being accepted into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II). Croatia has already met all necessary criteria for acceptance, but despite Plenkovi’s optimism, this is not a done deal, as the European Union parliament continues to express reservations about Croatia’s alleged mistreatment of migrants by its police force.

Croatia’s Protracted Schengen Process

Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, when it was legally required to join the Schengen Area as an EU member. Croatia’s application, however, was not implemented until 2015, when Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostoji declared his country’s preparedness to enter the Schengen Area and requested an EU technical assessment. The examination began in July 2015 and was completed in eighteen months. Croatia acquired access to and membership in the Schengen Information System in June 2017 as a result of the review. This was a critical first step toward Schengen Area membership, but much more was required.

Croatia’s government was tasked with meeting the European Union’s 281 recommendations in order to gain accession to the Schengen Area. This is the most suggestions ever made to a single country seeking to join the Schengen Area, yet Croatia had completed this massive effort by mid-2019.

Current situation OF CROATIA

Croatia was declared to have passed the review procedure in October 2019 and the European Commission endorsed the country’s application to join the Schengen Area. This was the first and most challenging stage in the joining procedure. Croatia has spent the subsequent months implementing all essential security and travel measures in order for the EU to formally decide on the country’s application.

Croatia’s Schengen application was formally approved in March 2021 by the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, and it is now only a matter of time until Croatia takes a seat at the Schengen table. Although whether that occurs by 2024, as Croatian delegates expect, is speculative, the signals are quite encouraging.

Croatia currently meets all conditions for accession to the Schengen Area’s borderless nature, according to the European Union’s Council.

Croatia has met the requirements for the execution of the Schengen acquis in its entirety, which is a precondition for the nation to enter the Schengen Zone, the Council concluded during a meeting on Thursday, December 9.

The latter now has 26 members, 22 of whom are also members of the European Union. Croatia, along with Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, is one of the only four EU member states that is not a member of the Schengen Area.

According to a news release issued by the Council on the subject, Croatia has adhered to all Schengen acquis requirements, save for the abolition of internal border controls, since joining the EU on July 1, 2013.

“According to Croatia’s EU accession statute, the relaxation of these controls can occur only following a Council resolution, following verification that Croatia meets the Schengen criteria in accordance with Schengen evaluation processes,” the Council says in the same press release.

Croatia proclaimed its preparedness to begin the Schengen review in July 2015, and the evaluation lasted through 2020.

The EU Commission concluded on October 22, 2019 that Croatia has made the necessary steps to ensure the adherence of all Schengen norms and standards. Despite the favorable assessment, the Commission emphasized that Croatia would need to continue working on the execution of all ongoing activities, with a particular emphasis on border control.

At the time, Slovenia’s then-Prime Minister Marjan Sarec denounced the judgment, calling it political and insisting that Croatia first follow the arbitration judgement on its border dispute with Slovenia.

Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental group, also criticized the evaluation, suggesting that Croatia should be barred from Schengen membership owing to violent pushbacks of refugees at its borders.

“Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders render the premise that Schengen membership is conditional on human rights respect useless,” Lydia Gall, HRW’s senior researcher for Eastern Europe and the Balkans, had stated at the time.

Croatian civil society organizations and activists, the country’s Ombudsman’s Office, and a range of international governmental and non-governmental players had joined the demand, pushing the EU to bar Croatia from the Schengen Area unless its officials ceased illegal and violent migrant pushback.

France and the Netherlands have been staunch opponents of Croatia’s Schengen Area entry thus far, citing “rule of law issues.” Both countries, however, have now agreed with the rest of the EU that Croatia should be allowed to enter the Schengen Zone.

In the aftermath of the Coronavirus outbreak, the European Union issued a series of guidelines and recommendations to Member States in an effort to assist them in progressively removing travel restrictions and reviving the tourism business.

While European Union Vice-President Margaritis Schinas stated that “there is no room for discrimination” when presenting the recommendations, countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia “experience discrimination” because they remain outside the Schengen zone despite meeting all of the criteria for membership set by the European Parliament and the Commission.

Concerning these three nations’ admittance to the Schengen Area, some member states, such as the Netherlands and France, continue to oppose their participation owing to “rule of law concerns.”

Dacian Ciolos, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, shared a video of his two-day travel from Bucharest to Brussels.

Whereas Dragoș Tudorache, a Romanian Member of the European Parliament (RENEW), claims that “What has occurred during the previous two months for all EU citizens has occurred for Romanian, Bulgarian, and Croatian citizens for the last 12 to 13 years.”

MEP Tudorache is seeking a political signal, a sign, that persons on the Schengen waiting list are eligible for consideration for admission.

In February of this year, during the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban stated that the Romanian government believes the country has met all conditions for Schengen membership.

What does the European Commission says?

Johansson’s remarks came during a debate on the annual Schengen report, which was authored by Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon (S&D).

The Commissioner emphasized the importance of reestablishing the Schengen Zone by eliminating domestic border controls imposed to stem the spread of the Coronavirus outbreak.

“The virus poses a serious threat, but internal border restrictions have not and will not halt the spread of the virus. Only unified effort would assist us in resolving this situation,” Johansson stated in the European Parliament.

Tanja Fajon, a member of the European Parliament, emphasized in the study the Schengen Zone nations’ repeated introduction of border checks following 2015, most notably during the outbreak of Coronavirus.

“The Schengen Area should be fully operational presently, despite the fact that it is entirely paralyzed. It is sustained by apparata,” the Slovenian MEP noted.

Fajon stated that countries who conduct unreasonable border checks should face further sanctions.

Concerning Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania’s entrance to the Schengen Area, she stated, “We cannot tolerate a Europe that operates on two distinct levels.”

Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania have been obliged by the European Commission to join the Schengen Zone on an ongoing basis.

Johansson stated in May that she supports Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia joining the borderless zone while emphasizing the importance of the EU updating and strengthening Schengen.

Johansson demanded at the time that the European Union’s member states open their borders once the Coronavirus outbreak was contained. However, countries such as the Netherlands and France oppose these three European countries’ entrance to the Schengen Zone on the grounds of “rule of law concerns.”

Bibliography

‘Croatia Set to Join Schengen Area – ETIAS.COM’. Accessed 19 December 2021. https://etias.com/articles/croatia-set-to-join-schengen-area.

Crowcroft, Orlando. ‘A Decade after Talks Began, Is Romania Any Closer to Joining Schengen?’ euronews, 26 March 2021. https://www.euronews.com/2021/03/26/a-decade-after-talks-began-is-romania-any-closer-to-joining-schengen.

SchengenVisaInfo.com. ‘EU Council Agrees Croatia Has Fulfilled All Criteria to Join the Borderless Schengen Area’, 10 December 2021. https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/news/eu-council-agrees-croatia-has-fulfilled-all-criteria-to-join-the-borderless-schengen-area/.

Balkan Insight. ‘European Commission: Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia Should Join Schengen’, 3 June 2021. https://balkaninsight.com/2021/06/03/european-commission-romania-bulgaria-croatia-should-join-schengen/.

SchengenVisaInfo.com. ‘France and Netherlands Remain Unsupportive of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia’s Schengen Accession’, 26 May 2020. https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/news/france-and-netherlands-remain-unsupportive-of-romania-bulgaria-and-croatias-schengen-accession/.

EUobserver. ‘Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, “join Schengen” Call by EU Parliament’. Accessed 19 December 2021. https://euobserver.com/democracy/152406.

SchengenVisaInfo.com. ‘The Schengen Agreement – History and the Definition’. Accessed 19 December 2021. https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/schengen-agreement/.

ETIAS.info. ‘Will Bulgaria Join Schengen Area Soon?’, 9 January 2019. https://www.etias.info/bulgaria-schengen-area-member/.

Henrique Horta

Henrique Horta, graduated from Lisbon’s ISCTE-IUL university with a masters in International Relations, the thesis focusing on Ukraine’s accession to the EU. With knowledge of demography, political science and history through his bachelors, Horta also knows Portuguese, Spanish, French and English, giving as well a more Atlanticist view of Central Europe.