Fri, Jul
68 New Articles

Bulgaria’s Schengen Path

Bulgaria’s Schengen Path

Issue 11.2
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

After years of preparation, Bulgaria’s integration into the Schengen area marks a significant moment, with the lifting of border controls at air and sea entry points as of March 2024. Boyanov & Co Managing Partner Borislav Boyanov, Dinova Rusev & Partners Managing Partner Ivelina Cherneva, Djingov, Gouginski, Kyutchukov & Velichkov Partner Anton Krustev, and Gugushev & Partners Senior Partner Victor Gugushev discuss Bulgaria’s pursuit of Schengen integration.

A Step Forward

“Bulgaria’s Schengen journey has been paved with legal and political milestones,” Gugushev begins. “This translates to the current rules where air and sea travel for Bulgarian citizens is visa-free within Schengen member states, marking a novelty for many.”

Krustev further explains that “checks on persons at internal air and sea borders with and between Bulgaria and Romania and the other countries part of the Schengen area shall be lifted as of March 31, 2024.” As for the checks on persons and vehicles at internal land borders, Krustev says that “there are no novelties, and the current limitations remain unchanged. Land border crossers are subject to the standard migration check rules, without exception, until Bulgaria achieves full accession to the Schengen zone.”

“From a practical and technical point of view, it is a partial accession,” Boyanov notes, highlighting that still, “from the viewpoint of European law and the purely political and legal view, it is not a partial accession because Bulgaria will be joining other members of the Schengen area on the table for a discussion about all Schengen-related topics on an equal basis.”

Charting Progress

In terms of the process leading up to the partial accession, Cherneva says that “Bulgaria has been working toward joining the Schengen zone for years, initiating amendments in its legal framework since 2013 to comply with Schengen rules and requirements.”

“For a very long time, Bulgaria has been ready to join the Schengen area,” Boyanov continues. “The European Commission first confirmed that both Bulgaria and Romania were ready to become part of the Schengen area without internal border controls in 2011. Since then, Bulgaria and Romania have continued to demonstrate that they fulfill the conditions for becoming Schengen members.” Boyanov adds that overall, “it was a very long and painful process for both Bulgaria and Romania.”

The extensive journey toward partial accession, Gugushev explains, “involved evaluations by EU bodies focusing on border security, rule of law, and adherence to the Schengen acquis. Ongoing technical preparations have also been crucial.”

Moreover, Cherneva underscores recent legislative changes in Bulgaria, particularly in relation to the European Travel Information and Authorization System and the Extradition and European Arrest Warrant Act, to name a few. Additionally, Cherneva notes significant efforts in implementing technical equipment at border crossing points to align with Schengen standards: “Due to efforts made in recent years, the border crossing points have been equipped with the necessary technical and administrative formalities to harmonize customs regulations and tariffs with Schengen standards.” These amendments, Cherneva emphasizes, “enhance cooperation with other Schengen member countries in law enforcement, security, and judicial matters.”

Opening Doors

The accession, even if partial, is perceived as positive overall, according to Gugushev. “The impact of partial accession is multifaceted. The overall economy stands to benefit from increased tourism and potential trade growth, particularly for export-oriented industries.”

“The accession of Bulgaria to Schengen, starting with lifting control at air and sea borders as of March 2024, will boost travel, trade, and tourism and further consolidate the internal market,” Boyanov continues. “The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen will contribute to eliminating barriers within the single market, mainly in terms of facilitating transport flows, as well as fostering EU competitiveness and growth potential.” This, according to him, will likely improve the connectivity “not only between Bulgaria and the other the EU member states but also between Bulgaria and third countries located outside Europe because traders, investors, and tourists from these countries would perceive Bulgaria more positively after its accession to Schengen.”

Krustev also highlights potential economic benefits, adding that “easier travel within the Schengen area also boosts tourism and cultural exchange.” An enlarged Schengen area, on the other hand, “will make the EU stronger as a Union, internally and on the global stage. It will make the Union stronger through reinforced protection of the common external borders and effective police cooperation – more prosperous by eliminating time lost at borders and facilitating people and business contacts – and more attractive by significantly expanding the world’s largest common area without internal border controls,” Krustev notes.

“The challenge for Bulgaria after entering the Schengen area at the end of March 2024 would be rather to find innovative ways to take advantage of its right to vote and to take various initiatives,” Boyanov continues. “Continuous assistance on the side of the EU for Bulgaria and Romania in protecting EU external borders, substantial financial support, and Frontex assistance would significantly benefit both countries by providing more resources, equipment, and expertise against not only migration but also illegal import of any kind of goods.”

Hurdles Ahead

Despite progress, significant challenges persist on the horizon. “As Bulgaria takes its first steps within the partially accessible Schengen zone, a web of legal and political nuances emerges,” Gugushev adds. “While air and sea travel soars unburdened, land borders remain subject to checks, creating a complex landscape for businesses and citizens alike.”

“The land transportation sector, being the most volume-intensive segment, is adversely affected by Bulgaria’s partial acceptance into the Schengen zone,” Cherneva continues. “A significant portion of import-export trade occurs via land borders, and the existing burdens continue to impact this segment.”

Consequently, Boyanov stresses that “the Bulgarian economy would not be able to fully benefit from the positive impact of the country’s accession to the Schengen area until the control over the land borders is lifted.”

Toward Full Inclusion: What’s Next?

In terms of the next steps, the path forward to full Schengen accession isn’t as distant as it might seem. “Discussions on a date for a possible lifting of the checks on persons at internal land borders will continue in 2024, and a decision by the European Council on this matter is expected within a reasonable time frame, according to the EU,” Boyanov reports. “The expectations in both Bulgaria and Romania are related to possible lifting controls on land borders within 2024, but as a result of difficult negotiations. Some dose of pessimism about the time of the final outcome still exists because it is related to the domestic political developments in Austria. However, it should be remembered that Austria experienced an identical situation in its accession to the Schengen area regarding lifting control on the land borders in the past as Bulgaria and Romania at present.”

“While Bulgarian politicians express optimism for full accession by the end of 2024, the European Commission maintains a more cautious stance, stating that discussions will continue in 2024, with a decision by the Council expected within a reasonable time frame,” Krustev adds. “Taking into account Bulgaria’s geographical position, relentless collaboration together with additional efforts would be needed with Austria, Romania, and the European Commission to achieve this goal.”

Despite the absence of a definitive timeline for full membership, Gugushev stresses the importance of addressing concerns of certain EU members regarding border security and the rule of law. “While there is no clear timeline for full membership, addressing concerns raised by certain EU members about border security and the rule of law is paramount. Open communication and continued reforms are key to unlocking the next steps,” he concludes.

This article was originally published in Issue 11.2 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

Our Latest Issue