BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union countries agreed Thursday to allow Croatia to fully open its borders and participate in Europe’s ID-check-free travel zone, but Bulgaria and Romania were told that they must wait longer to be allowed in.
“The Schengen area is growing for the first time in more than a decade,” the Czech Republic, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency tweeted after a meeting of interior ministers in Brussels. “Ministers approved Croatia’s membership as of 1 January 2023!”
The so-called Schengen area is the world's largest free travel zone. It comprises 26 countries — 22 EU states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Almost 1.7 million people live in one Schengen country and work in another. Around 3.5 million people cross an internal border each day.
Austria, in particular, had objected to Bulgaria and Romania joining, citing migration concerns.
“When it comes to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria we are not united and that makes us very weak and that makes me also sad,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters after the decision was announced.
“You deserve to be full members of Schengen, you deserve to have access to the free movement in the Schengen area,” Johansson said, adding that the two had strong support from almost all the ministers present.
Full accession for the EU’s newest members — Bulgaria and Romania joined the bloc in 2007, Croatia in 2013 — required unanimous support from their partners.
Last month, the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, ruled that all three candidate countries meet the technical criteria for joining, and the European Parliament has also voted in favor of their membership.
Croatia’s bid received no notable opposition from its EU partners, and the government in Zagreb hailed the news.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic wrote on Facebook that, with the open borders, Croatia “has fulfilled the strategic goals of the government” and that “citizens and the economy will have the biggest benefit.”
"Croatia is in Schengen!" Deputy Prime Minister Davor Božinović crowed.
“There are no more borders on our European journey. We met all the conditions, went through a long and demanding process,” he said. "With Croatia in Schengen, everyone benefits — the citizens, the economy, Croatia and the EU.”
But ahead of Thursday's meeting Austria appeared almost certain to veto the Bulgarian and Romanian bids over immigration, as increasing numbers of people cross its borders without authorization via the Balkans region.
Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner renewed his country’s staunch opposition, noting that more than 100,000 people have entered Austria this year without authorization.
“The system is not working right now,” he told reporters.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also sparked a furor last week when he alleged that Bulgarian border security officials could accept cash bribes.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev hit back, writing on Facebook that three Bulgarian border officials have been killed in recent months while protecting the bloc’s external borders. “Instead of European solidarity,” Radev said, “Bulgaria receives cynicism.”
In an effort to ease their partners’ concerns, Bulgaria and Romania invited EU fact-finding missions with national experts twice in recent months to see how things have improved.
Before Thursday’s decision, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had called on Austria to back down. “Especially in these times, it is important that Europe moves closer together,” she said in a statement.
The President of the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, Marcel Ciolacu, wrote on Facebook after the decision was announced, that “Austria’s unfair opposition is a free Christmas gift” for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“European unity and stability have today received a hard blow from a state that has chosen, in difficult times, to abandon its European comrades and serve … the interests of Russia,” Ciolacu said. “Austria is clearly disconnected from Europe.”
Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev was cautiously optimistic after Thursday’s announcement, saying that he thought common ground could be found to overcome the objections of Austria, and perhaps the Netherlands.
“Austria already signaled that there are mechanisms, compromises that it is ready to accept. So, the talks will continue,” he told reporters.
Honor Keleman, Romania’s Deputy Prime Minister, however, was incensed by the result and vowed to “continue to fight” to join Schengen “without giving in to Austria’s miserable blackmail.”
“Austria’s veto is unfair, immoral, lacking solid arguments, showing a miserable political game,” he wrote on Facebook. “Yes, it is a miserable decision against every Romanian citizen ... against the laws governing freedom of movement within the European Union.”
Rights group Amnesty International also noted the decisions with concern, pointing to reports and evidence about migrants being unlawfully detained in some EU countries, notably Croatia.
“Today’s announcement that Croatia is joining the Schengen area shows that the EU condones, and even rewards, these illegal practices, and is willing to sacrifice human rights to prevent people from entering the EU,” said Amnesty’s Western Balkans Researcher Jelena Sesar.
McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania. Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.