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Croatia has received the go-ahead to join Europe's Schengen passport-free travel zone in January in a long-awaited decision that leaves out Bulgaria and Romania.
The decision came on December 8 during a meeting in Brussels of interior and justice ministers of EU and Schengen states and was heartily welcomed by Croatia but greeted unhappily by Bulgaria and Romania.
"The Schengen area is growing for the first time in more than a decade," tweeted the Czech Republic, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. "Ministers approved Croatia’s membership as of 1 January 2023!"
Croatia's delegation to the EU also responded enthusiastically.
"Last step completed! Council decision adopted -- It is now formally confirmed that #Croatia joins #Schengen area as of 1 January 2023," it said on Twitter.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic wrote on Facebook that, with the open borders, Croatia "has fulfilled the strategic goals of the government" and that "citizens and the economy will have the biggest benefit."
Deputy Prime Minister Davor Bozinovic said Croatia met all the conditions in a long and demanding process.
"With Croatia in Schengen, everyone benefits -- the citizens, the economy, Croatia and the EU," he said.
Twenty-six countries -- 22 EU states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland -- currently comprise the
Schengen area. Croatia will become its 27th country and the first to join since the area was expanded in 2011 to admit Liechtenstein.
The EU said Schengen is the largest free-travel area in the world. Within it there are 1.25 billion journeys annually and 3.5 million border crossings daily, it said.
The move required unanimous support from the 27 EU members. Croatia's bid received no notable opposition, while the membership of Romania and Bulgaria was opposed by Austria and the Netherlands, citing corruption and migration concerns as increasing numbers of people cross its borders without authorization via the Balkans region.
Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner noted that more than 100,000 people have entered Austria this year without authorization.
"It is wrong that a system that does not work properly in many places would get expanded at this point," he said.
Throughout the bloc in the first 10 months of 2022, 281,000 irregular entries were recorded, up 77 percent from a year before and the highest since 2016, Frontex, the EU's border police, said last month.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had urged Austria to change its mind especially at time when it is "important that Europe moves closer together,” she said in a statement.
The Netherlands also opposed granting access. The Dutch parliament in October adopted a resolution saying further analysis of the functioning of the rule of law and the extent of corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria and Romania was needed.
Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said he was disappointed and would reapply.
"We regret and honestly do not understand the inflexible position taken by Austria," he said.
Honor Keleman, Romania’s deputy prime minister, however, was incensed by the result and vowed to "continue to fight" to join Schengen "without giving in to Austria's miserable blackmail," he wrote on Facebook.
Bulgaria will also try again, its foreign minister said.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev was cautiously optimistic, saying he thought common ground could be found to overcome the objections of Austria and perhaps the Netherlands.
"Austria already signaled that there are mechanisms, compromises that it is ready to accept. So, the talks will continue," he told reporters.
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said Romania and Bulgaria deserve to be full members of Schengen and have access to free movement.
"I share the disappointment with the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania," he said.
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