Austria has softened its veto on the Schengen accession of Romania and Bulgaria by proposing the abolition of border checks at airports.
The idea, colloquially known as “Air Schengen,” would amount to partial membership in the passport-free area, which currently encompasses 27 countries, including 23 European Union states, and over 423 million citizens.
Border checks at land borders with other Schengen countries would remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Romania and Bulgaria have been considered ready to join the sprawling zone since at least 2011 but their joint ambition has been thwarted on multiple occasions, most recently last week, when Austria’s Interior Minister Gerhard Karner re-affirmed his opposition.
Austria, together with the Netherlands, has become the final roadblock to overcome.
It was all the more surprising that Karner himself made the “Air Schengen” proposal over the weekend, raising hopes that the long-standing impasse, which has often appeared insurmountable, could be finally headed to a resolution.
“Yes, I can imagine changes as far as airports are concerned for Romania and Bulgaria,” Karner told ORF radio, Austria’s public broadcaster.
The European Commission, which has repeatedly and strenuously defended the readiness of Romania and Bulgaria to become Schengen members, quickly welcomed the olive branch and said talks were already taking place to make “Air Schengen” a reality.
“These are positive developments. Things are moving in a positive direction. And definitely, this is what is important at this stage,” a Commission spokesperson said on Monday afternoon.
But Vienna’s offer comes with conditions attached.
Karner asked for a threefold increase of Frontex officers and technical upgrades along the Bulgarian-Turkish and Romanian-Serbian borders, coupled with an injection of EU funds to pay for border protection infrastructure. (The Commission has previously rejected calls to pay for fences and walls but is willing to finance patrol equipment.)
The Austrian minister also demanded greater surveillance at Schengen’s internal borders and greater relocation of asylum seekers, particularly those coming from Afghanistan and Syria, the two largest groups of nationalities
The asylum seekers should be transferred from other EU countries, where they currently wait for their applications to be processed, to Romania and Bulgaria.
The Commission confirmed it had received Vienna’s request and was in the process of analysing the various demands.
“For the European Commission, the protection of our external borders is a key priority. Let that be clear. We will ensure the necessary funding is made available,” the spokesperson said, without providing an estimated timing.
“As regards Frontex, the agency stands ready to increase its support as needed.”
Even if “Air Schengen” amounts to partial membership, it would still require the unanimous approval of all member states. Spain, the current holder of the EU Council’s presidency, has indicated its willingness to hold a vote as soon as the conditions change.
The Netherlands has long been opposed to Bulgaria’s accession over rule-of-law concerns, although this position is considered somewhat more flexible than Austria’s previously inflexible veto. The Netherlands, however, is in the midst of a power transition following last month’s surprising victory of the far-right party of Geert Wilders and it’s unclear what position the next government will take.
Meanwhile, in Romania, Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu greeted the news and said he had instructed his interior minister to bring the negotiations to a “successful conclusion.”
“We broke the ice!” Ciolacu wrote on Facebook.
“This means that Romanians will no longer have to stand in long queues when flying within the EU. We have worked hard in recent months to get to this point, and I am grateful to all those who have fought for Romania.”
His Bulgarian counterpart, Nikolay Denkov, was notably more careful, saying Austria’s proposal was its “negotiating position, not the final result.”
“What is acceptable is for Bulgaria to comply with the general European rules,” Denkov told Bulgaria media. “If someone wants other rules that are specific to Bulgaria, this is categorically unacceptable.”