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Schengen zone: Croatia gleeful, Bulgaria, Romania dismayed

Alexandar Detev in Sofia | Dalibor Dobric in Zagreb | Sabina Fati in Bucharest
December 10, 2022

The EU has agreed to Croatia joining the Schengen zone of unrestricted movement. But the blocking of bids by Bulgaria and Romania has triggered disappointment and calls for boycotts in the two countries.

Queues of cars at the border between Croatia and Slovenia
Daily commuters from Croatia are glad that they will no longer be stuck in traffic jams at the borderImage: Stipe Majic/AA/picture alliance

"Finally!" was the unanimous reaction not only of politicians, the media, and the business community, but also of ordinary citizens in Croatia after the announcement on December 8 that the youngest member of the European Union would join the Schengen Area as of January 1, 2023.

What a relief: Croatia's path to Schengen has been tedious and complicated. The government in Zagreb began the application process in 2016 after the country was admitted into the EU in 2013. Croatia had already fulfilled the 281 conditions a year ago, but there were fears till the last minute that Austria or Hungary might block the country's entry over migration policy issues. 

Croatians share mixed feelings on euro

No more border checks

From January 1, 2023, there will no longer be checks at the 73 border crossings between Croatia and its neighbors in the Schengen zone: Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Hungary. This is already nice even for Croats who do not leave the country that often, but it is particularly good for those who have to cross the border daily to get to work.

Ana, who lives in Zagreb but works in Slovenia, said she was delighted that she would no longer have to wait at the border each morning and worry about arriving late. Petar, who lives on Croatia's Adriatic coast and also works in Slovenia, was pleased that he would not have to take each Friday off during next year's tourist season to avoid miles of traffic jams at the border.

It is particularly good news for the transport and tourism industries in Croatia. "The waiting times at the border crossings have made the transport of goods much more expensive," economic analyst Luka Brkic told DW.

He added that studies had found that the development would send a positive signal to tourists on short breaks and weekend getaways. "Croatia is a car destination; you can reach the Mediterranean in a few hours from Austria or Hungary. But the fear of having to spend much more time on the road because of the border has deterred many visitors so far."

Bulgarians disappointed

But in Bulgaria there was dismay. "I am very disappointed," said Stanislav Savov after it became clear that his country had not been granted entry to the Schengen zone due to the resistance of the Netherlands and Austria.

The 29-year-old Bulgarian studied in Austria and knows the political situation there well — he was certain that the government was motivated by domestic reasons.

"In the wake of the declining support for his party, Chancellor Karl Nehammer is being forced to take a tougher stance regarding migration than would actually be necessary," Savov told DW. But he said it was precisely because of this issue that EU states with a long external border needed "help and not rejection."

Savov had another concern: "Given the declining support of the Bulgarian population for the EU and the success of Russian propaganda in our country, blocking Bulgaria's entry to the Schengen Area is not good for the European Union."

Bulgaria failed on corruption

However, Vessela Cherneva, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, said that migration was not the only reason that Bulgaria had been rejected: "Only 5 or 6% of asylum seekers enter the EU through Bulgaria. In fact, this is about Bulgaria's problems with rule of law and fighting corruption," she said.

She said Bulgarian policymakers had to take decisive steps to finally win the trust of Western EU partners: "Romania also has major problems with corruption — but the country has been much more successful in the area of the rule of law than we have been here in Bulgaria."

The Adriatic coast of Croatia
The Croatian tourism industry is expecting more visitorsImage: Lenz G./imageBROKER/picture alliance

Calls for boycott of Austria in Romania

"Romania doesn't need Schengen," said Nicolae Dan, a 51-year-old civil servant in the capital, Bucharest. In his opinion, the decision not to admit Romania could have positive consequences for the country. "Now, our country could also leave the European energy market," he explained. "Because it mainly brings disadvantages to our companies." But he was angry that the EU seemed to expect "us to fall on our knees and beg for Schengen."

Florina Enciulescu, a 29-year-old lawyer, said that the decision was an "injustice." She thought that the EU was worried about the impact the Russian war in Ukraine was having on it and was thus trying to "isolate its borders."

However, she thought that calls by certain Romanian politicians to boycott Austrian banks and the Austrian oil, gas and chemicals company OMV, went too far: "Austria, as a Schengen member, has the right to block our entry."

The 57-year-old engineer Ovidiu Vasile was also against boycotting Austria and said that he was less disappointed with politicians in Vienna than with those in Bucharest: "In 30 years, our politicians have not managed to implement the structural reforms that are necessary for our country to make real progress toward Europe," he said.

Cristian Preda, the dean of political sciences at the University of Bucharest and a member of the EPP Group in the European Parliament from 2009 to 2019, accused Romanian politicians of "not having prepared answers in time to questions that had long been asked by various Schengen states."

He regretted that Romania's politicians had only woken up when it became clear that only Croatia would be admitted — and had then tried to "use the Russian aggression in Ukraine as a pretext to get on the Schengen train after all, even though it had long since departed for Zagreb."

Preda also felt that it was wrong to behave in a hostile way towards Austria. "People have gone too far; even Romanian lawmakers, including MEPs as well as ministers have threatened boycotts or even the arrest of the directors of Austrian companies in Romania. This shows that even 15 years after EU accession, Romania's representatives have basically not grasped the decision-making mechanisms of European institutions."

This article was translated from German.

Portrait of a bearded man (Dalibor Dobric) in glasses smiling at the camera
Dalibor Dobric Freelance reporter focusing on the economy, energy and current affairs in Croatia