European interior ministers on Thursday approved Croatia’s membership of the bloc’s border-free Schengen zone, eliminating checks at the frontiers of the Adriatic nation, one of Europe’s busiest tourist destinations.
“Finally,” Croatian interior minister Davor Božinović told N1 television in Brussels. “Croatian citizens are entering the largest zone of free movement in the world.”
But the bloc rejected bids from Balkan neighbours Romania and Bulgaria. Zagreb would have liked for Romania and Bulgaria to join this year as well, Božinović said, adding “the fact is that no consensus was reached”.
The Netherlands blocked Bulgaria while Austria voiced concerns about Romania as well, deferring their approval until next year amid concerns over migration and corruption. Bucharest and Sofia each vowed to try to join the free travel zone in the near future.
The lack of consensus left some EU leaders disappointed. In order to join the Schengen area, countries must demonstrate reliable border checks and a functioning criminal justice system. Romania and Bulgaria “fulfil all the requirements”, the bloc’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said. “Today is a day of disappointment.”
German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock called it a “bad day for Europe”, while Czech interior minister Vít Rakušan said Romania and Bulgaria were ready, adding: “I’m convinced their time will come soon.”
Austria said it wanted to reform Schengen rules first to better manage undocumented migration. Vienna says around 100,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Austria this year via other Schengen or EU states.
Austria is prepared to discuss Schengen expansion next year, one person briefed on the discussions said. “[Austria] didn’t say no, but said not now. That’s a big difference,” said the person. “The approach is not against [Romania and Bulgaria] . . . the system obviously doesn’t work.”
The bloc dismissed a Dutch proposal to admit Romania but not Bulgaria, as that would make the poorly monitored frontier between the two countries the Schengen zone’s external border.
Croatian trade associations welcomed the decision, expecting a boost from tourism and retail consumption especially after the introduction of the common European currency from January 1.
“ [Schengen and eurozone membership] will attract guests and strengthen the interest in Croatia in the EU and in third countries,” said Veljko Ostojić, the director of the Croatian Tourism Association.
Romania will continue to seek entry into the Schengen area, premier Nicolae Ciuca said. Bulgaria — where four elections in less than two years ended without stable governments and a fifth vote is likely next year — will also keep trying, said caretaker foreign minister Nikolay Milkov.
Bulgaria must tighten the security services, border control and its justice system, said Hristo Ivanov, chair of the liberal Democratic Bulgaria group. “Attempts to stall justice reform hurt our country . . . Nothing to be angry about. We have to do our job.”