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Romania and Bulgaria will partially enter Schengen after reaching an agreement with Austria

Romania and Bulgaria have reached an agreement with Austria to partially join Europe’s Schengen border-free travel zone by March 2024, Bucharest and Sofia have confirmed.

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The political agreement will allow Romania and Bulgaria to join the Schengen zone only by air and sea, and further negotiations will follow on land borders, the Romanian Interior Ministry said on Wednesday.

Austria had blocked the two countries’ accession to the Schengen area, fearing it would lead to an influx of irregular migrants into Europe via Turkish and western Balkan routes.

The Schengen area currently includes 27 countries, including 23 European Union states, and more than 423 million citizens. Romania and Bulgaria had been seeking access for more than a decade.

Welcoming the agreement on social media platform Facebook, Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said: “After thirteen years, Romania will finally join Schengen – we have a political agreement.”

“From next March, Romanians will be able to benefit from the advantages of the Schengen area by air and sea,” he added. “I am also convinced that in 2024 we will close the negotiations on land borders.”

Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov confirmed on Thursday that an agreement had been reached after “complicated negotiations”.

“After 12 years without much progress on Schengen, today we can congratulate ourselves on this undeniable success of Bulgaria,” Denkov said.

The European Commission had considered both countries ready to join the Schengen area since 2011, but EU states had blocked a deal due to fears over the rule of law and an increase in migration.

Austria was the last member state to partially abandon its veto. Until early December, she continued to argue that the Schengen area needed to become “better” before it could expand and claimed that the EU lacked sufficient resources to effectively patrol the external borders.

The Netherlands had previously expressed similar concerns.

Earlier this month, Austria showed signs of compromise with a proposal for partial entry by air only – known as “Air Schengen” – helping to break the impasse. The decision was part of intense negotiations under Spain’s rotating presidency of the EU Council.

But difficult negotiations over land access for the two Eastern European countries to the Schengen passport-free zone will continue into the new year.

Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner had called for an increased presence of Frontex agents along the Bulgarian-Turkish and Romanian-Serbian borders as well as more European funds to protect these borders from influxes of irregular migrants.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister confirmed on Thursday that, as part of the upcoming negotiations on land accession to Schengen, the European Commission will support the protection of the EU’s external borders with Turkey and Serbia.

Both countries are considered popular routes to Europe for asylum seekers.

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