European Union interior minsters voted to accept Croatia in the 26-nation Schengen area, but to reject Romanian and Bulgaria.
The vote was received with relief in Zagreb but anger and dismay at Bucharest, Sofia and Bucharest.
The German foreign minister stated that it was a bad day in Europe.
All three countries were endorsed by the European Commission as they meet the criteria for membership in the zone that includes 420 million people.
“I’m also sad,” stated Ylva Johansson, EU home affairs commissioner.
Croatia joined the EU in 2013. Romania and Bulgaria were members six years prior.
Andrej Plenkovic, Croatia’s Prime Minister, praised the decision. This means that Croatia will no longer have to cross borders with EU neighbors Slovenia and Hungary on the 1st of January. It will also join the euro.
The Schengen Area was created in 1985 and allows goods and people to freely travel, often without the need for travel documents or customs documentation.
It comprises 22 of 27 EU states, as well as Norway Switzerland Iceland Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
The Netherlands and Austria voted against the admission of Romania and Bulgaria due to concerns about their softness on illegal migration. Austria was the most vocal opponent.
Gerhard Karner, Austria’s Interior Minister, stated that it was not right to expand a system that isn’t working in many places at the moment. He explained his country’s veto.
The main reason that Romania and Bulgaria were not allowed to join Schengen was cited by the Vienna government as a rapid rise in illegal migration through the West Balkan route.
But, politicians in Romania and Bulgaria claim that very few people cross their territory and that Schengen membership has been stalled for political reasons. They claim that the Dutch and Austrian governments want to attract anti-immigrant votes.
EU Border Agency Frontex reported 128,000 “irregular entry” to the EU from the West Balkans so far this year, an increase of 77% over 2021 with 22,300 in October. These numbers include multiple attempts from the same person.
According to the Austrian government, 75,000 illegal migrants are currently living in the country. After flying legally into Serbia, a non-EU country, 40% of the migrants are from India and Tunisia. Another 40% come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Syria.
Romania stated that it didn’t understand Austria’s “inflexible” decision.
Marcel Ciolacu (head of Social Democrats) said that Europe’s unity and stability was dealt a hard blow by a state which chose to serve Russia’s interests in difficult times and abandon its European comrades.
Ivan Demerdzhiev (Bulgaria’s acting interior Minister) was more diplomatic. He stated that Austria had made it clear that it was open to compromise and wanted a complete Schengen reform in places where they do not work.
Austrian migration researcher Judith Kohlenberger also raised concerns, pointing out the fact that most people who came to Austria seeking protection were already living in the EU.
She said, “To blame Romania, Bulgaria, but not Hungary, or even Croatia for their continued systematic push-backs is both irrational, and hypocritical.”