Bulgaria: Schengen at the end of the tunnel


Bulgaria has long been (since 2011) trying to join the Schengen zone. On December 7, the European Parliament declared that it meets all the conditions and urged the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council to accept the application. However, Sofia still has a number of hurdles to overcome on this path.

The first one seems to have been overcome: Hungary’s veto has been lifted. Official Budapest resorted to its favorite trick after the Bulgarian authorities announced on October 14 that they would raise tariffs for the transit of Russian gas through the TurkStream pipeline. It was planned that the new fee to be paid by importers and gas transportation organizations would be $111 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Hungary, Serbia and North Macedonia said that these actions «are a hostile step that threatens their energy security» and warned that they would take joint measures. The emphasis was that the decision contradicts the principle of European solidarity and violates EU trade rules.

In fact, only Hungary, which, unlike the other two countries, is a member of both the EU and Schengen, had an effective lever (veto).

Hungarian experts noted that taking into account the peculiarities of long-term contracts and the settlement procedure, the increase in the fee would create an unnecessary financial burden not for the buyers, but for the supplier. In other words, Gazprom would have to pay for the Bulgarian greed. Budapest reasonably feared that in such a situation the profitability of trade in Russian gas would significantly decrease, and Moscow might reduce the volume of supplies. So the Hungarians went on a determined attack.

And the Bulgarians trembled: on December 8, the parliament canceled the increased tariffs for the transit of Russian gas.

On December 22, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto wrote in one of the social networks: «We spoke again by phone with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Mariya Gabriel, who said that the law canceling the additional tax on natural gas supplies to Hungary was officially published today in the Bulgarian newspaper and thus came into force. We are satisfied with this».

He said he had instructed his representative in Brussels to lift the veto on Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen area.

As a result, Bulgaria is left with one consistent and principled detractor — Austria. Official Vienna is blocking Bulgaria’s accession with a veto because it allegedly does not meet the necessary requirements — in terms of border control, establishment of democracy and fight against corruption. However, a few days ago, the Austrians also took a half-step. The authorities said that they could soften their veto and agree to Bulgaria’s entry into the so-called «Air Schengen». In other words, they are ready to give «permission» to abolish passport control for Bulgarians at airports.

This is fundamentally inconsistent with the line of the European Commission, which believes that Bulgaria should enter Schengen fully and without restrictions. Austria’s proposal, of course, will please those who use air transportation to travel to EU countries, but this measure does not facilitate crossing the land borders of the European Union.

«And this means queues again, economic problems, lost money», says Adina Valean, the EU’s transport commissioner.

But Vienna remains adamant. For their symbolic «concession» the Austrians demand from the Bulgarians to ensure stricter control of land borders with Turkey, and from Brussels — to triple the contingent of the EU border control agency Frontex in Bulgaria. Vienna, moreover, wants Sofia to accept asylum seekers who are currently in Austria. Primarily Syrians and Afghans.

Nevertheless, the cautious moves in the Austrian position have given cause for optimism.

«Already in March 2024 Bulgaria will join the «Air Schengen», and at the beginning of 2025 will become a full member of the Schengen Agreement. These timelines also correspond to Austria’s demands to lift the veto, which are quite feasible — the construction of a strong fence along the border with Turkey and the deployment of an additional Frontex contingent along the Bulgarian borders», said former deputy head of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry Milen Keremedchiev .

The Sofia authorities, however, are refraining from making predictions, although deep down they believe in the best. The Schengen will give new prospects for economic growth, development of tourism and trade, increase in the volume of direct foreign investments, realization of infrastructure projects.

But what difficulties may await Russian tourists who have real estate in Bulgaria? The consequences were revealed in the Association of Tour Operators of Russia. The country will be automatically connected to the Schengen visa system, so the provision of biometric data will be required. If the visa of a Russian tourist, issued earlier by another member state of the agreement will be canceled, Bulgaria will have the right to refuse him in obtaining its entry documents. It is not excluded that, along with Schengen, the issuance of national Bulgarian visas will be preserved for some period of time. Now a multi-visa for property owners for three years costs 14 thousand rubles, while for children under 12–5.5 thousand. The authorities of Sofia can allow the already issued national visas to remain in effect until the end of their term and continue to provide them during the transition period. But then this process will require additional regulation in accordance with the Schengen Agreement.

So, Zlatni-Pyasatsi and other popular Bulgarian resorts may well become inaccessible for Russian tourists and real estate owners.