Bulgaria, Romania take first steps into Europe’s visa-free zone

 Austria's veto has resulted in the new status not applying to land routes, as Vienna expressed concerns about a potential increase in asylum seekers.

Despite the partial membership, the removal of controls at the air and sea borders between the two countries holds significant symbolic importance. Stefan Popescu, a foreign policy analyst, sees the admission to the Schengen area as a crucial milestone for Bulgaria and Romania, representing a matter of dignity and belonging to the European Union.

Popescu noted that any Romanian who had to use a separate lane from other European citizens felt a sense of being treated differently.

Ivan Petrov, a 35-year-old Bulgarian marketing executive residing in France, expressed enthusiasm for the prospect of less stressful travel and the time-saving benefits it would bring.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen hailed this development as a great success for both countries and a historic moment for the Schengen area, emphasizing the area's role as the largest free movement zone globally.

With Bulgaria and Romania joining, the Schengen zone will encompass 29 members, including 25 EU member states, as well as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.

Romania's government specified that Schengen rules would apply to four sea ports and 17 airports, with Otopeni airport near Bucharest serving as the primary hub for Schengen flights. Additional staff, including border police and immigration officers, will be deployed at airports to assist passengers and detect illegal departures from Romania.

Random checks will also be conducted to identify individuals with counterfeit documents and combat human trafficking.

Both Bulgaria and Romania aim to fully integrate into Schengen by the end of the year, although Austria has only relented on air and sea routes so far.

Croatia, having joined the EU after Romania and Bulgaria, became Schengen's 27th member in January 2023.

The Schengen area, established in 1985, enables over 400 million people to travel freely without internal border checks.

Despite reasons for celebration, truck drivers facing long queues at borders with neighboring EU countries feel excluded. The UNTRR, one of Romania's main road transport unions, has urged urgent measures to achieve full Schengen integration, citing substantial financial losses due to prolonged waiting times.

According to the union, truckers often wait between eight to 16 hours at the Hungarian border and up to 30 hours at the Bulgarian border, with some instances lasting up to three days.

Bulgarian businesses have also expressed frustration over slow progress, highlighting that only a small percentage of goods are transported by air and sea while the majority rely on land routes. Vasil Velev, president of the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association (BICA), emphasized the need for progress in Schengen integration for land transportation.

Both Bucharest and Sofia have affirmed their commitment to irreversible progress in Schengen integration, with Romanian Interior Minister Catalin Predoiu emphasizing the need for completion by 2024, including the extension to land borders.

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