The common European travel area, known as the Schengen space, has become for Bulgaria something of a political equivalent of the Champions League for the country's football teams. We all know that in theory it is open to all European countries, but in practice we keep failing to reach it, failing at its threshold year after year.
Sofia has been trying - unsuccessfully - to become a member of this borderless space for about a decade now. Recently, the topic of joining Schengen has all but completely disappeared from public discourse. The reason was that the pandemic temporarily revived border control across the EU, and then came the war. Bulgaria, on the other hand, changed several governments and the fight against corruption, not Schengen, took precedence for them ever since.
But now Sofia has another (and perhaps the last, at least for a long time) chance to push its bid forward. In May, the European Commission called on the European Council to adopt a decision allowing Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria to join the Schengen area.
The Commission made its call in a special, unprecedented report on the state of the Schengen area. It noted that the three countries have met all requirements, with the process of joining already having started for Croatia, as the country has done its homework well and is now going through final formal procedures in Brussels to join in early 2023. However, there are still no guarantees that the same will happen with Bulgaria and Romania, as the two Balkan countries must harness all their strength to "catch" the wave of enlargement, which will be the last for many years to come. The results of these efforts will be clear by October.
Schengen back on the agenda
In recent years, the European Commission and the European Parliament have repeatedly called for Romania and Bulgaria to join the borderless zone. The issue was recently commented on by the European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, who said: "The Schengen area must be completed by allowing the three Balkan countries to take their place in the passport-free zone." Furthermore, she stressed: "Summer inspires us to fully restore freedom of movement and prepare Schengen for the future so that our children can work, study and travel all over Europe whenever and wherever they want."
A decade after the last successful technical reviews for Bulgaria, however, this process is still not complete. The reason has been a lack of unanimity from member state leaders, which has hampered the process. At one point, it became more than clear that Bulgaria's main opponent to entry, the Netherlands, did not think the country met the political criteria and had serious reservations over organized crime and corruption that would affect the shared travel area. France was the other country that tacitly supported the Dutch veto.
After the issue lost momentum in recent years, Croatia's negotiations seem to have opened the door for Bulgaria and Romania.
The idea was that the aforementioned report of the European Commission on the state of Schengen was to be the basis for negotiations between member states on reforms in Schengen, which include finding solutions for better border management, police cooperation, as well as visa policies and data protection. These new priorities will also have to be addressed by future members of the visa-free area as soon as possible. For Croatia, things are certain, and there is unanimity among European leaders that Zagreb - which just joined the Euro - meets all the criteria and will also be part of the Schengen area from the beginning of 2023, as the last formal procedures for this are currently underway.
"We are convinced that Croatia meets all the conditions to join Schengen, and we will do everything possible during our presidency ... to help it join from next year," Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala told reporters after a meeting with his Croatian counterpart Andrej Plenkovic in Prague.
Where does Bulgaria currently stand?
According to sources of KInsights in the Council of the EU, this time Bulgaria and Romania have one foot in the Schengen area - there is political agreement on the issue now, but a new technical examination is due in September, which will cover both countries - and especially the state of their interior ministry systems to assess their readiness, taking into account the latest reforms.
Entry into the Schengen area was one of the key goals of Kiril Petkov's government. "Clearing the way to Schengen was among the priorities of our government. There is one last examination to come, which we initiated together with our colleagues from Romania," former PM Petkov told KInsights.
Caretaker Justice Minister Krum Zarkov has already confirmed that now is the time for Bulgaria to take the final steps. In his words, Bulgaria can show that it has started "on an irreversible path" in the upcoming end-September review.
"I hope by the end of the year Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia will be part of the Schengen area together. Bulgaria should have joined in 2011 when it met the technical criteria. We made a serious mistake by allowing the technical assessment of membership to be superseded by political considerations that went on for more than 10 years. The European Council has finally realized that the Schengen reform processes must run in parallel, because there are norms that do not withstand crises and the admission of new countries," Vice President Iliana Yotova, who used to be an MEP and worked on the issue of joining the shared travel space, told KInsights.
Nothing is certain yet
Members of both the current and the previous cabinet expressed their fears that Sofia could miss this train as well. President Rumen Radev officially expressed a similar position. "We can no longer afford to waste time and resources; we cannot afford the risk of Bulgaria remaining on the periphery of the EU," the president said when he presented the caretaker cabinet.
"The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have a lot to do, because the issue is not (only) technical, the technical problems were reported as solved 10 years ago, but, above all, political," says Krum Zarkov.
"I can imagine that we will consider the three applications together, but if (Bulgaria and Romania) prove to be an obstacle, it would be fair to... accept Croatia, where I feel there is a common agreement and there are no technical obstacles," Czech Prime Minister Fialla added at the same press conference where he announced the news about Croatia.
The long road to Schengen may be even longer for some
There are further possible complications for Sofia however - discussions on the sidelines of high-level Brussels meetings have it that Romania is the more technically prepared of the two countries. Bucharest realizes this and is ready to seize the moment because it knows that if it does not, a better opportunity may not arise soon. Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca has already said that he expects Romania to join the Schengen area before the end of this year. Mr Ciuca also expressed his confidence that Brussels will lift its monitoring over the country's judiciary and anti-corruption reforms.
"Everything we have done since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine shows that we are ready to become Schengen members. We expect all other EU leaders to recognize this," Mr Ciuca underlined. His words were confirmed by Commissioner Ylva Johansson during her visit to the humanitarian aid camp at the Siret border crossing with Ukraine in the spring: "As you know, over the last ten years the Commission has assessed that Romania is ready for Schengen. We are trying to convince the council to go ahead because it is time for Romania to become a full member of Schengen."
Krum Zarkov confirmed that there is a "certain lag" in Bulgaria's performance compared to its northern neighbor, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working on overcoming.
The legacy of Kapitan Andreevo
However, the Foreign Ministry is not the key factor in this process. Far more important is another department - the Interior Ministry. It bears the burden of border security and compliance, as well as scandals such as the one with the de facto privatization of the Kapitan Andreevo border crossing on the Turkish frontier. It is notable that no one in the Interior Ministry has faced any comeuppance on the border crossing over the past decade.
Speaking to KInsights, Kiril Petkov directly linked the border crossing issues with Schengen. "Over the years, Bulgaria has received many official signals from European institutions and MEPs about the problems with the border control at Kapitan Andreevo. It is clear that Bulgarian citizens cannot travel freely in Europe to this day because of these issues' neglect," Mr Petkov added.
Diplomacy, however, also has a role to play. This is how Bulgaria has apparently managed to overcome the political obstacles to membership of the EU Council's members, and at the moment at least France appears ready to lift its veto.
What comes next?
If the vetting of the performance of the Bulgarian Internal Ministry in September is satisfactory and is ready on time, the topic of Bulgaria's Schengen application could be raised when the October leadership council convenes in Brussels. The question is who will represent the country then, and how convincing they would be. This remains an open question, as there would likely be no functioning parliament capable of pushing through legislative changes that would be needed urgently past the technical examination, diplomats in Brussels say.
The unfortunate effect of this - plus the unlikely quick formation of a ruling coalition and a cabinet after the 2 October vote - might be another failure of the Bulgarian application, as Romanians and Croats would hardly want to wait for a breakthrough in Bulgarian politics. On the positive side, a serious breakthrough for Schengen might still work out even without a functioning parliament - by tabling bills for which Brussels has been waiting for a long time, Justice Minister Zarkov says. This, however, is rather optimistic, and might result in Bulgaria hitting a closed door on the threshold of Schengen once again - this time remaining there all alone.