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Von der Leyen’s Schengen message fails to raise enthusiasm in Bulgaria

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s call on Wednesday (13 September) for Bulgaria and Romania to join the Schengen area as soon as possible prompted applause from MEPs but failed to impress the Bulgarian audience, who are pressing for action over words.

Von der Leyen devoted part of her annual State of the European Union speech to migration issues, with an emphasis on the EU having strengthened border protection.

“Allow me to thank in particular Bulgaria and Romania for leading the way – showcasing best practices on both asylum and returns. They have proved it: Bulgaria and Romania are part of our Schengen area. So let us finally bring them in – without any further delay,” the Commission president said, prompting applause in the Strasbourg hemicycle.

According to the Commission, Bulgaria and Romania fulfilled membership criteria several years ago. However, Schengen enlargement is decided by the consensus of its members, and such has not been achieved at the moment.

In previous State of the European Union speeches, von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, made similar appeals to member states to open up the Schengen space to Bulgaria and Romania, but since the decision is taken by unanimity, there has always been one or more countries making use of their veto.

Last December, Austria and the Netherlands blocked Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen, while Romania was stopped only by Austria.

Since 6 June, Bulgaria has had a stable government led by Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov from the reformist coalition We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria. His deputy is former EU commissioner Mariya Gabriel, who also holds the post of foreign minister and is expected to take over as prime minister after eight months.

Gabriel reacted soon after von der Leyen’s speech, hoping the EU countries would heed the chief’s call.

“Bulgaria must show a long-term commitment to the rule of law vis-?-vis the Netherlands. I think that with the work of the government and the National Assembly in the last three months, Bulgaria has made proof that we will fulfil our obligations.”

Gabriel argued that Austria was not opposed to the Schengen accession of Bulgaria and Romania but that it insisted that a reform of the European migration policy was needed.

‘Discreet diplomacy’

On Monday, Prime MInister Denkov said Bulgaria will have two opportunities to join Schengen this year – in October and December, when EU ministers will discuss the issue. Last week, he admitted in a TV interview that he cannot guarantee that the October target can be reached.

He referred to next month’s elections in the Netherlands, which, in his words, means that the migrant crisis will become even more politicised.

Bulgaria is the EU’s external border with Turkey and a major land route for irregular migrants.

If the elections in the Netherlands become an obstacle, Denkov said, the Spanish presidency of the EU Council has promised that Bulgaria and Romania’s next chance would be in December.

Bulgaria’s membership in the Schengen area is tied to Romania, with the two countries being treated as a package even before their EU accession in 2007.

Romania welcomes VDL’s comment but…

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Romania’s Foreign Minister Luminita Odobescu welcomed the “firm and straightforward” call by von der Leyen for Schengen enlargement without any further delay”.

“Romania has already proven its place in Schengen,” she added.

Earlier this week, Bucharest hardened its tone and said it would seek compensation for the costs incurred on its hauliers because the country was still outside Schengen.

Romanian Transport Minister Sorin Grindeanu said on Monday that the financial damage suffered by road carriers amounted to 2% of the country’s GDP.

“My colleagues and I spoke with the transport carriers last week. It is difficult for me to make exact calculations for taxes and lost hours at customs, but it is clear that border control affects the international transport of goods,” Grindeanu commented.

[Edited by Alice Taylor/Nathalie Weatherald]

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