Schengen: Yes to Croatia, no to Romania and Bulgaria

The interior ministers of the Schengen area take in little Croatia. But Bulgaria and Romania have to stay out - because Austria is opposed.

Austria says no, Austria is not participating. On Thursday morning in Brussels, Interior Minister Gerhard Karner was determined to give up the spoilsport. He is in favor of including Croatia in the Schengen area, i.e. in the group of European states that no longer carry out controls at their internal borders. But he will vote against Romania and Bulgaria “for security reasons”. His government does not want to expand a system that does not work. Wouldn’t that ruin Austria’s reputation in Europe? Karner didn’t even respond to the objection before he disappeared to meet his colleagues.

Karner actually said yes to Croatia – and no to Romania and Bulgaria. In the case of Bulgaria, there was a second dissenting voice, which came from the Netherlands. Parliament had expressed reservations there. But the Netherlands alone would probably not have prevented the necessary unanimity. The driving force was Austria.

Karner and ÖVP party colleague Karl Nehammer, the chancellor, had once again decided the day before: Austria had detected more than 100,000 illegal border crossings on its eastern borders this year, and 75,000 of these people had not yet been registered – European border security and However, the registration of migrants is a matter for the states at the external borders, and the EU states Romania and Bulgaria obviously do not meet these obligations.

The fact that Karner and Nehammer waved Croatia through is due to the good relations between the two governments. In addition, they probably did not want to take responsibility for Croatia vacationers continuing to be stuck in traffic at the border. Austria’s black-green government obviously acted for domestic reasons, they wanted to take the wind out of the sails of the right-wing populist FPÖ, and they used the Schengen debate as an instrument for this. This is how the German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser assessed Austria’s behavior on Thursday. She had tried until the end to change the Austrians’ minds and now she “cannot understand” the decision, she said. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke of a “bad day for Europe” during a visit to Dublin. The decision was “wrong in terms of European politics and geopolitics”.

Nancy Faeser hopes that the heads of state and government will now deal with the issue

Margaritis Schinas, the EU Commission’s vice-president responsible for migration issues, said all three countries had “over-fulfilled” the conditions. And admitting Romania and Bulgaria would mean that controls would be carried out in the countries according to common standards. This was also the view of the Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger, whose country, like Austria, is severely affected by rising migration numbers. The governments of Bulgaria and Romania had previously expressed outrage at Austria and announced “countermeasures”, whatever they might look like. The Commission wants to try to bring about a new vote on Romania and Bulgaria by the end of their term in 2024. Nancy Faeser hopes that the heads of state and government will revisit the issue at next week’s summit.

“Schengen” stands for one of Europe’s great, identity-forming success stories, cross-border travel without controls. However, a prerequisite for dismantling internal barriers is securing the external borders. Even though Austria’s government was isolated that day, the steadily growing number of migrants coming to Europe is calling the system into question and worries many countries.

As far as the number of asylum applications is concerned, we are still a long way from the crisis years of 2015 and 2016. According to the EU Asylum Agency, 660,000 people applied this year, a third fewer than at the same time in 2016 – on the other hand, half more than in 2021. More and more people are coming from countries who have little chance of being allowed to stay such as India, Bangladesh, Tunisia or Turkey. And apparently many of them are not registered and cared for in the countries in which they set foot in Europe, even though this is what the European asylum system provides for.

The distribution of asylum seekers remains an issue of conflict

Not only the Austrian government, but also the German government, complains about this phenomenon of “secondary migration”, which places a particular burden on individual countries. The rules would have to be observed, migrants would have to be registered at the external borders, said Interior Minister Faeser in Brussels, she addressed the topic at the meeting on Thursday. Her Belgian colleague Nicole de Moor also described the situation as intolerable that so many migrants continue to travel to countries where they see better chances of recognition, above all to Germany, but also to Belgium and the Netherlands.

War refugees from Ukraine add to the growing number of asylum seekers on the Western Balkans route and the Mediterranean route. Although they do not fall under the asylum system, more and more of them have to be housed in refugee shelters. Alongside Poland, Germany takes in the most. If there is another wave of refugees from Ukraine in winter, Germany will push for a more even distribution in Europe, Minister Faeser said in Brussels. This is a question of European solidarity.

Because there is no permanent agreement on the admission and distribution of asylum seekers, the EU is moving from trouble spot to trouble spot, with ever new “action plans”. The Commission presented two of these plans to the ministers on Thursday: one for the central Mediterranean route to appease the Italian government, and one for the Western Balkans route to accommodate the Austrian government. In cooperation with third countries, migrants should therefore be prevented from traveling to Europe at all. Border controls are to be strengthened and returns accelerated. However, the Austrian government does not go far enough. She wanted to set an example this Thursday.


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