Bulgaria, Romania take first steps into Europe’s visa-free zone

Bulgaria, Romania take first steps into Europe’s visa-free zone
Bulgaria, Romania take first steps into Europe’s visa-free zone

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Passengers walk by to 10 years-old German shepherd Sonya, a dog specialized on drugs sniffing, at the Henri Coanda International Airport in Otopeni, Romania, on March 28, 2024, as part of the random passport checkings in the waiting area made by the Romanian border police with dogs. Romania and Bulgaria will join on Sunday, March 31, 2024 Europe's passport- and visa-free Schengen Area, applying only to travelers arriving by air and sea. — AFP pic

SOFIA, March 31 — Diana Simeonova with Antrada Lautaru Bulgaria and Romania joined Europe’s vast Schengen area of free movement today, opening up travel by air and sea without border checks after a 13-year wait.

A veto by Austria however means the new status will not apply to land routes, after Vienna expressed concerns over a potential influx of asylum seekers.

Despite the partial membership, the lifting of controls at the two countries’ air and sea borders is of significant symbolic value.

“I travel often and this really eases things”, Kristina Markova, 35, said as she readied to fly out of the Sofia airport on Sunday morning.

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“We got to the terminal in less than three minutes, including baggage check,” she said. “It’s a real improvement”.

Admission to Schengen is an “important milestone” for Bulgaria and Romania, symbolising a “question of dignity, of belonging to the European Union”, according to foreign policy analyst Stefan Popescu.

“Any Romanian who had to walk down a lane separate from other European citizens felt being treated differently,” he told AFP.

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“This is a great success for both countries, and a historic moment for the Schengen area—the largest area of free movement in the world,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement Saturday.

“Together, we are building a stronger, more united Europe for all our citizens.”

And they were 29

With Bulgaria and Romania, the Schengen zone now comprises 29 members -- 25 of the 27 European Union member states as well as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

Romania’s government said Schengen rules would apply to four sea ports and 17 airports, with the Otopeni airport near the capital Bucharest serving as the biggest hub for Schengen flights.

More staff including border police and immigration officers will be deployed to airports to “support passengers and detect those who want to take advantage to leave Romania illegally”, it added.

Random checks will also be carried out to catch people with false documents and to combat human trafficking.

Bulgaria and Romania both hope to fully integrate into Schengen by the end of the year, but Austria has so far relented only on air and sea routes.

Croatia, which joined the EU after Romania and Bulgaria, beat them to becoming Schengen’s 27th member in January 2023.

Created in 1985, the Schengen area allows more than 400 million people to travel freely without internal border controls.

‘Irreversible process’

While some have reason to celebrate, truck drivers, faced with endless queues at the borders with their European neighbours, feel left out.

One of Romania’s main road transport unions the UNTRR has called for “urgent measures” to get full Schengen integration, deploring the huge financial losses caused by the long waits.

“Romanian hauliers have lost billions of euros every year, just because of long waiting times at borders,” secretary general Radu Dinescu said.

According to the union, truckers usually wait eight to 16 hours at the border with Hungary, and from 20 to 30 hours at the Bulgarian border, with peaks of three days.

Bulgarian businesses have also voiced their anger over the slow progress.

“Only three per cent of Bulgarian goods are transported by air and sea, the remaining 97 per cent by land,” said Vasil Velev, president of the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association (BICA).

“So we’re at three per cent in Schengen and we don’t know when we’ll be there with the other 97 per cent,” he told AFP.

Bucharest and Sofia have both said there will be no going back.

“There is no doubt that this process is irreversible,” Romanian Interior Minister Catalin Predoiu said this month, adding it “must be completed by 2024 with the extension to land borders”. — AFP

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