Brussels welcomes Austria's proposal of 'Air Schengen' for Romania and Bulgaria


Austria has softened its veto on the Schengen accession of Romania and Bulgaria by proposing the abolition of border checks at airports. 

Austria is floating the concept of "Air Schengen," a nickname for the partial inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria in the Schengen agreement. This would involve eliminating passport checks at airports. The Schengen zone currently includes 27 countries, with 23 being European Union members and a total population of over 423 million.

However, it's important to note that border controls at land crossings with other Schengen nations would remain in effect for the time being.

Although Romania and Bulgaria have met the criteria for Schengen membership since at least 2011, their joint entry has faced setbacks. Just last week, Austria's Interior Minister Gerhard Karner reiterated his opposition to their accession.

Austria, along with the Netherlands, stands as the final hurdle to clear in the Schengen accession for Romania and Bulgaria. Surprisingly, Austria's Interior Minister Gerhard Karner himself put forth the "Air Schengen" proposal over the weekend, sparking optimism that the longstanding deadlock might finally find a resolution.

In an interview with ORF radio, Austria's public broadcaster, Karner stated, "Yes, I can imagine changes as far as airports are concerned for Romania and Bulgaria."

The European Commission, a staunch supporter of Romania and Bulgaria's Schengen readiness, swiftly embraced the proposal, expressing positivity about the ongoing discussions to actualize "Air Schengen."

A Commission spokesperson remarked on Monday afternoon, "These are positive developments. Things are moving in a positive direction. And definitely, this is what is important at this stage."

Vienna's proposal, however, comes with specific conditions. Interior Minister Gerhard Karner has outlined a threefold increase in Frontex officers and the implementation of technical upgrades along the Bulgarian-Turkish and Romanian-Serbian borders. Additionally, he called for EU funds to cover the costs of enhancing border protection infrastructure. While the Commission has previously rejected financing fences and walls, it is open to funding patrol equipment.

Karner also pressed for heightened surveillance at Schengen's internal borders and increased relocation of asylum seekers, especially those from Afghanistan and Syria, the two largest nationality groups. The plan involves transferring asylum seekers from other EU countries, where they currently await application processing, to Romania and Bulgaria.

The Commission acknowledged Vienna's request and is currently assessing the various demands. A Commission spokesperson emphasized the importance of protecting external borders and assured that necessary funding would be provided, without specifying a timeline. Regarding Frontex, the agency is prepared to increase its support as required.

Even if "Air Schengen" represents only partial membership, it still hinges on gaining unanimous approval from all member states. Spain, currently holding the EU Council presidency, has signaled its readiness to conduct a vote when conditions change.

The Netherlands has historically opposed Bulgaria's accession due to rule-of-law concerns. However, this stance is seen as somewhat more flexible than Austria's previous rigid veto. The Netherlands is undergoing a power transition after the far-right party of Geert Wilders secured a surprising victory last month. The position of the incoming government remains uncertain.

In Romania, Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu welcomed the news, instructing his interior minister to bring the negotiations to a "successful conclusion." Ciolacu expressed his excitement on Facebook, stating, "We broke the ice!" He highlighted the potential end to long queues for Romanians flying within the EU and thanked those who contributed to this progress.

On the other hand, Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov approached the matter cautiously, characterizing Austria's proposal as a "negotiating position, not the final result." Denkov emphasized that Bulgaria must adhere to general European rules, deeming any attempt to impose specific Bulgarian rules as "categorically unacceptable."