Lyubomir Kyuchukov: European context for Schengen enlargement is favourable

Bulgaria and Romania should take a coordinated approach to Schengen accession negotiations

Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner has announced that Austria is ready to remove borders for air traffic from Bulgaria and Romania. The land borders will retain their current status, as Bulgaria and Romania will not be officially Schengen members. This Austrian proposal comes with three conditions – hosting refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in both countries, a three-fold increase in Frontex presence in Bulgaria and intensified controls at the Romanian-Bulgarian and Romanian-Hungarian borders. 

Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu wrote on Facebook that the ice has been broken and said that this means “Romanians will no longer stand in endless queues when they fly to the European Union”. “After years of waiting, we will realize this dream together! Romania deserves to be in Schengen,” Ciolacu added. But the conditions imposed by Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner to allow air travellers from Bulgaria and Romania to enter the Schengen area without checks were considered unacceptable by both Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev. 

“We have never discussed our entry into Schengen in this way and it is not acceptable as defined. Introducing additional rules for Bulgaria and Romania is not acceptable. The idea is to respect the rules of the European regulation, which we already cover. If someone wants specific rules for Bulgaria, it is certainly not acceptable,” Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov told bTV.

He said negotiations on the country’s entry into Schengen were continuing.

According to head of state Rumen Radev, Bulgaria’s entry into the so-called air Schengen is a step forward, but we have to be very careful that the label “Bulgaria is already in Schengen” does not remain and that participation in the area is not full. It is extremely important for our country to open the land borders of the Schengen area, not only the air borders, said Rumen Radev.

The Bridge of Friendship talks to veteran Bulgarian foreign policy analyst Lyubomir Kyuchukov about Bulgaria’s reaction to the Austrian proposal and what’s next. Kyuchukov believes that Bulgaria and Romania should take a coordinated approach to Schengen accession negotiations

Mr Kyuchukov, we have an Austrian proposal for at least a temporary solution for Bulgaria and Romania to join Schengen, which has provoked an enthusiastic reaction from the Romanian Prime Minister. In Bulgaria both the Prime Minister and the President have said that the Austrian Interior Minister’s proposals are unacceptable. What makes these proposals so unacceptable to Sofia?

I would say, first of all, that this is a step in the right direction, but in my opinion it is not enough. What is positive is not so much the proposed solution itself, but the willingness to change the position of the Austrian side.

The gradual entry of the two countries into Schengen should in itself be normal. The big problem here is that, if entry is only achieved via airspace, it should also be linked to some kind of roadmap, which would also guarantee the moment of full Schengen membership for both countries.

Now it is said that negotiations will take place. That is, Bulgaria will probably try to renegotiate some of these conditions that have been set. What should Bulgarian politicians do to protect Bulgaria’s interests in this matter?

First of all, I would say that it is worthwhile for the two countries, Bulgaria and Romania, to take a coordinated approach to this issue. What needs to be negotiated are the conditions formulated by the Austrian side, because they are, to put it bluntly, strange. In addition, two of the three conditions do not concern Bulgaria and Romania.

I mean primarily the question of receiving refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. This is not the subject of Austria’s bilateral relations with either Bulgaria or Romania. Solving the asylum problem for migrants has nothing to do with Schengen. It depends on the adoption of the migrant package at European level, which has been blocked for years. This is the first.

The second condition – for a threefold increase in the Frontex mission – does not apply to Bulgaria or Romania. It is, in fact, for the European Union. It is the European Union’s human and financial resources that need to be redirected in this direction.

The third request is to have increased control of Romania’s borders with Bulgaria, on the one hand, and Hungary, on the other. It is a consequence of Austria’s fundamental approach to this issue. Austria prefers to have more borders in the way of the flow of migrants before they reach the Austrian border, and not just one Schengen border between Bulgaria and Turkey.

What does increased border control between Bulgaria and Romania mean? Does it mean more checks on lorries? More difficulties for Bulgarian, Romanian and other European citizens crossing the border? Or is it rather people from outside the European Union who should be subject to more controls?

So far, there is a lack of specificity in the Austrian position. Undoubtedly, Austria’s entire position is linked to the migrant issue. Austria has always insisted on much stricter controls on illegal migration. Although there is a rather serious inconsistency in the Austrian position in this case, in that the flow of migrants does not go through Bulgaria and Romania as much as through Hungary and Croatia to Austria.

How do you assess the geopolitical context in which Bulgaria and Romania currently find themselves in their attempts to join Schengen?

The political conjuncture in the European Union is currently favourable to Bulgaria and Romania There is a clear understanding in the European Union of the need to strengthen the Union internally and to eliminate, as far as possible, the internal dividing lines in the European Union, given the need for unified solutions to the war in Ukraine.

But while the window of time that is now open is favourable, it is not a very long one. Next year, in 2024, very serious internal debates will take place in the European Union. First, again about Ukraine, but this time about Ukraine’s application to join the Union. Secondly, about the idea of reforming the European Union itself. The European Union, in its current form, cannot accept Ukraine as a member and, for this reason, a debate has already begun on representation in the European Union, in the European Parliament, on the number of MEPs, the number of European Commissioners and whether each country will have its own European Commissioner. We are also discussing how foreign policy decisions will be taken – whether they will be taken unanimously, i.e. whether countries will have the right of veto or whether they will be taken by qualified majority. Above all, there remains the question of the budget.

If Ukraine joins the European Union according to the current rules in force in the Union, it will literally suck up the two main European funds. Ukraine will consume most of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Cohesion Fund, and it will even turn most of the Eastern European countries into donor countries. All of this relates to something that seems to have gone unnoticed in this debate and which was contained in the Granada Declaration of the European Council in October this year: a change in the foundations of the European Union, a transformation of the European Union from a union of values and of EU membership as a process of meeting criteria into a geopolitical union. It was said there that Ukraine’s accession was a geopolitical investment.

In other words, if Bulgaria and Romania do not join Schengen now in the coming months, the Schengen issue will take a very, very back seat in the debate within the European Union itself.

Photo: Lyubomir Kyuchukov (source: YouTube)

The text was first published on Vladimir Mitev’s blog The Bridge of Friendship.

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