Elimination of border controls between Bulgaria, Romania and Greece is technically complex

The new head of the ECFR Sofia office speaks to the Bridge of Friendship about the new variation of the proposal for the abolition of border controls between Romania, Bulgaria and Greece

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 1 February 2024

The head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Maria Simeonova, spoke to Bridge of Friendship’s Vladimir Mitev about the proposal by politicians from Greece, Romania and Bulgaria to abolish border controls between their countries, which came a month after Austria, Bulgaria and Romania reached an agreement on the Schengen accession for Bulgaria and Romania, letting them in while maintaining land border controls between them and their Schengen neighbours.

Maria Simeonova explained that in the current version, the proposal of the politicians from the three countries has stronger political support than before – with obvious Greek support and with Dacian Cioloș – an influential Romanian politician at EU level (former EU Commissioner and former president of the Renew Europe parliamentary group) – also backing it. However, Maria Simeonova also pointed out that, in addition to the need for broader political support for such an idea, there is a need for clarity on the technical or legal aspects involved. The European Commission has not yet commented on this.

Maria Simeonova also pointed out that Bulgaria and Romania shouldn’t lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is to join Schengen via land borders, regardless of the outcome of this current initiative to abolish border controls between the three EU member states in Southeast Europe.

Mrs Simeonova, we are discussing a proposal by various politicians from Greece, Romania and Bulgaria to abolish border controls between the three countries. It is a variation of an earlier proposal for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen. What is different about the current variation of this proposal?

Good afternoon. And thank you for having me.

First of all, let us say that a few days ago, the Members of Parliament from Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, namely Daniel Lorer, Dacian Cioloș, Vlad Gheorghe and Giorgos Kyrtsos announced this initiative to create a kind of Balkan or mini-Schengen.

The proposal comes a month after Bulgaria and Romania reached agreement with Austria to became part of the Schengen area. So at the very end of last year, it was announced that from the end of March 2024, the sea and air borders for Bulgaria and Romania would be lifted for unchecked travel within the Schengen area. And the two countries were given the prospect of full membership of the Schengen area, which would mean the lifting of the land borders as well. We all know very well that Austria was the country that had some demands on Bulgaria and Romania. And that is why an agreement was reached, according to which Bulgaria and Romania have to strengthen their external borders. This is very important for our country, for Bulgaria, because Bulgaria is an external border of the EU and borders with Turkey. We know that at the moment the geopolitical tensions are dynamic and therefore the protection of the external border of the European Union is of paramount importance.

So these four politicians from the three countries wrote a letter to the Greek Minister of Immigration and Asylum, Dimitris Kairidis, asking him to create a kind of mini-Schengen between the three countries. What is the difference with the previous proposals for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen?

We now have a new situation for Bulgaria and Romania. The two countries will become part of the Schengen area. And land border controls to the Schengen area will soon be abolished for them too. Another difference is that a representative of the Greek MEPs supports the initiative. So here we have a very strong political will to promote cooperation, trade cooperation, economic cooperation between the three countries, but also to promote tourism. We all know very well that many Bulgarian and Romanian tourists visit the Greek coast during the summer months, and the lifting of land border controls will significantly reduce the time spent at the borders. And these are exactly the reasons that the four politicians cite in their letter to the Greek minister.

A Greek politician is involved in this idea of abolishing border controls between Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. Also, Dacian Cioloș is a very influential Romanian politician on EU level. To what extent do you think that this alliance of different countries and forces in European politics creates a greater chance or possibility for the proposal to be realised?

I look at this proposal from two perspectives – the technical perspective and the political perspective. The presence of politicians from these three countries makes the support for the initiative even stronger. But on the other hand, we still don’t know what the European Commission’s opinion is on whether this initiative is somehow feasible to realise. From what I’ve heard from colleagues who focus on the application and implementation of the Schengen Agreement, it will be very important to know whether such an initiative would be in line with the provisions of the Treaty on European Union, the Schengen Agreement and the agreement that I mentioned last year for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area. So on the political front, as you said, prominent politicians support the initiative. But I think that the outcome of this initiative, the end game of this initiative, will somehow be the intersection between the technical side of the matter and the political side of the matter.

Okay. Just a quick question on the technical side. Judging from what you have read or what you have discussed with the experts, do these three countries have the right to unilaterally abolish border controls between themselves, especially at a moment when Bulgaria and Romania agreed with Austria just a month ago to actually strengthen border controls between themselves?

Yes, indeed. That is the tricky part of this whole initiative. In the agreement that you just mentioned, Bulgaria and Romania have to guarantee tighter controls at their borders. And at the same time, the initiative provides for the lifting of land border controls. So we have a dynamic debate about what the European Commission would say about this initiative. We should also not underestimate the political side of the issue. Many decisions taken by the European Union are political. But there is also a technical side that we shouldn’t ignore.

We are discussing all this just a few months before the European elections. To what extent do you expect that the issue of full Schengen accession across land borders and also this discussion about the abolition of border controls will play a role and perhaps even become a dividing line between the different political tendencies in Bulgaria in the European elections?

The Schengen debate, at least in the Bulgarian context, is inevitably linked to the migration debate. Recently, we at the European Council on Foreign Relations published two reports based on pan-European surveys. We found that a large proportion of Europeans are worried or see migration as the crisis that will affect their lives in the future. The other crisis mentioned by Europeans is the climate crisis. I’d like to stress that climate and migration were the two biggest crises that Europeans identified as affecting their future. So everything related to the migration debate will inevitably have an impact on the upcoming European Parliament elections, which will be held between 6 and 9 June 2024.

For the Bulgarian context, I expect that the candidates will talk about it, and will discuss in detail the perspective of Bulgaria into Schengen. But I think that the candidates should be very serious about providing the citizens with fact-based information about the migration flows in Europe and what would be the role of Bulgaria in ensuring the security of the whole European continent by being an external border. So I think there will be debates on these issues – both on Schengen and on migration. I also encourage politicians to be very serious about this, so that citizens have access to reliable information.

There is something else that is important to say about this Balkan mini-Schengen initiative. Whatever the outcome, it will be very important for Bulgaria and Romania not to lose sight of the ultimate goal of lifting land border controls. This prospect has been given to both countries and I think that both countries should work towards it.

Photo: Maria Simeonova (source: ECFR Sofia)

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