To call a spade a spade, the ongoing exclusion of Bulgaria and Romania from the Schengen passport-free area only helps to feed anti-EU propaganda and undermines the EU’s influence and values abroad, writes Ilhan Kyuchyuk.
Ilhan Kyuchyuk is a Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament for the Renew group.
Growing up under communism, I remember how the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolised a promise of freedom and unity for many Eastern Europeans, especially among the generations before mine, who lived their entire lives constrained between closed borders. That promise felt fulfilled as my country Bulgaria joined NATO, for our defence and the long-aspired dream to join the European Union, to be finally reunited with our fellow Europeans came to life. Yet, the continued exclusion of certain member states from the Schengen Area to this day undermines the very principles that the EU was founded upon, making some European citizens feel like second-class members of this Union.
One concern often mentioned is the fear that individuals from new members will be at the expense of the welfare systems of other member states. This is based on isolated cases that do not represent the broader community. Regulatory frameworks can and should be established to prevent such abuse and strict compliance with the rules should be monitored.
Another argument that holds Schengen accession is that it would exacerbate housing problems due to population density in some areas. It’s important to clarify that Schengen facilitates free movement for travel and work, not mass relocations.
Recent votes in the European Parliament underscore the urgency of this issue. With an overwhelming majority, members of the European Parliament have called for Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to Schengen by the end of 2023. Both countries have met the necessary criteria for years now and we don’t understand the decision by certain countries to reject their membership without offering any valid legal justification. This exclusion isn’t merely symbolic – it is not just the last closed border barrier in front of Bulgaria and Romania’s European unity in full; it also imposes real costs on businesses and citizens, further contributing to social and economic disparities.
Just as an example, travel and trade are hindered by delays that can last from hours to days–compared to an average 10-minute wait within the Schengen Area. This is particularly detrimental for truck drivers, impacting not just livelihoods but also increasing CO2 emissions by a staggering 46,000 tonnes annually–an environmental consequence that runs counter to our joint climate goals.
To call a spade a spade, the ongoing exclusion only helps to feed anti-EU propaganda and undermines the EU’s influence and values abroad.
There are valid questions about some countries’ ability to manage their borders effectively, particularly when it comes to processing asylum seekers and combating corruption. But these are not issues confined to any one country. As we see from the current migration numbers, no one country can deal with this alone.
But the good news is, here Europe has the expertise to help. By cooperating and pooling our expertise on border protection we can accelerate our readiness – anywhere where the EU has external borders. Enhanced training, shared technology, and joint operations can substantially upgrade our joint capabilities. This not only addresses any operational gaps but also serves as a collaborative tool to fight corruption and smuggling–problems that are not unique to Bulgaria or Romania but are Europe-wide issues that demand European solutions.
Schengen is not merely a political issue; it’s a human issue. It is about the student wanting to study abroad, the entrepreneur or the cross-border worker seeking opportunities across borders, and families wishing to travel freely. It is an issue of finally breaking the remaining physical limitations and feeling the freedom of being European, in its entirety.
As we approach key meetings in the coming months, the question before us is whether we want a two-tier European Union or an inclusive, unified community. The principles that founded the EU–freedom, equality, and rule of law–call us to action.
The clock is ticking. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to ensure that the European promise of freedom and unity leaves no one behind.