April 19, 2024

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Romania and Bulgaria have partially joined the European Schengen Travel Area, but checks at land borders remain in place

Romania and Bulgaria have partially joined the European Schengen Travel Area, but checks at land borders remain in place

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Romania and Bulgaria partially joined Europe's identity-verification-free travel zone on Sunday, marking a new step in the two countries' integration with the European Union.

After years of negotiations to join the Schengen Area, there is now free access for travelers arriving by air or sea from both countries. However, land border checkpoints will remain in place due to opposition primarily from Austria which has long blocked their attempt over illegal immigration concerns.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the change as a “huge success for both countries” and a “historic moment” for the world's largest free travel zone.

The Schengen Area was established in 1985. Before the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, the area consisted of 23 of the 27 EU member states, along with Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. About 3.5 million people cross internal borders every day.

Austria vetoed the accession of Romania and Bulgaria To the Schengen Area at the end of 2022, but allowed Croatia to fully join. Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007 and Croatia in 2013.

Siegfried Muresan, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, told The Associated Press it is an “important first step” that will benefit millions of travelers annually.

“Bulgaria and Romania have met all the criteria for joining the Schengen area for years – and we have the right to join the land borders as well,” he said, adding that it would “provide additional arguments for the last EU member state to join the Schengen area.” Objection to full accession.”

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Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciulacu described the achievement as a “deserved achievement” for Romania and said it would benefit citizens who could travel more easily and would boost the economy.

“We have a clear and firmly assumed government plan to fully join the Schengen Area by the end of the year,” he said.

The European Commission, the EU's executive authority, has been confirming for more than a decade that Romania and Bulgaria meet the technical criteria for full accession, which requires unanimous support from their partners. The two countries agreed to implement random security checks at airports and maritime borders to combat illegal immigration and cross-border crime.

“Bulgaria’s full accession to the Schengen Area will happen by the end of 2024,” Kalin Stoyanov, Bulgaria’s Interior Minister, told reporters on Sunday. He added: “We have shown and are still showing illegal immigrants that they should not take the route to Europe through Bulgaria.”

The lifting of border controls is expected to facilitate operations at Bulgaria's four international airports, which in 2023 saw nearly 11 million passengers, according to official data.

Airport representatives said that Sofia Airport is the largest hub for Schengen flights, which constitute 70% of all flights.

While the relaxed regulations are expected to positively impact the tourism sector, MEPs have expressed concerns about long queues at the EU's land borders and their impact on trade in the bloc's single market, as well as health and safety. From drivers.

Truck drivers are often stuck in long queues at the borders of Romania and Bulgaria. Bulgaria's International Airlines Association estimates that delays cost the sector tens of millions of euros every year.

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McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.