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SOFIA/BUCHAREST — Romania and Bulgaria have officially joined — at least partially — the European Schengen visa-free travel zone since March 31, a move widely welcomed in both countries as well as in the EU after years painful negotiations.

On March 31, Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov called this event a “great victory” for his country of 6.6 million inhabitants.

“Bulgaria is at a historic moment in joining the Schengen area, and this is not just a political cliché,” said Denkov, who resigned this month but remains in office until the formation of a new government.

“After 2007 and Bulgaria’s accession to the EU, this is the greatest success of Bulgarian diplomacy, Bulgarian institutions and Bulgarian politicians,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Gabriel also described the day as a “historic moment”.

“Bulgaria is becoming a community of millions of people traveling freely, with benefits for business, tourism and culture. Let us all move forward together towards the ultimate goal of abolishing land border controls,” he said. she declared.

Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said it was a “well-deserved success” for his country of 19 million people.

“We have a clear and firmly committed government plan for full membership of the Schengen area by the end of the year,” he said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement on March 30 that “this is a great success for both countries. And a historic moment for the Schengen area, the largest free movement area in the world.”

“Together we are building a stronger and more united Europe for all our citizens,” she added.

Since midnight, free movement is now assured for those arriving and departing by plane and boat to the two countries, but not by road. Indeed, Austria opposed it, arguing that opening land routes to Romania and Bulgaria could make it easier for migrants to enter other EU states.

Denkov said an “appropriate political moment” was being sought to determine when to abandon land border controls.

“Maybe after the elections in Austria (in the fall) or for the European Parliament (on June 9),” he said.

Bulgaria and Romania, which began negotiations to enter the Schengen area in 2011, hope to have their land borders open by the end of 2024.

Created in 1985, the Schengen area allows more than 400 million people to travel freely without internal border controls. It now includes 29 European countries, or 25 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

Romania and Bulgaria are the only EU member states that do not benefit fully from Schengen benefits.

Croatia – which joined the bloc in 2013, six years after the entry of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 – was accepted fully in the Schengen area in January 2023.

Romania said it would carry out random checks to guard against fake travel documents and combat human trafficking.

For Romania, the change will have an impact on the work of its 17 commercial airports, which welcomed nearly 25 million passengers in 2023, reports the Romanian service of RFE/RL. More than 70% of all flights are to other Schengen countries, according to airport officials. said RFE/RL.

The country’s Otopeni Airport, near the capital Bucharest, is the largest hub for Schengen flights.

While the move was welcomed in both countries, the remaining road checks at the borders have angered others, notably truck drivers, who face long waits at the borders with their EU neighbors.

Earlier this month, one of Romania’s main road transport unions, the National Union of Road Transporters of Romania (UNTRR), called for “urgent measures” to achieve full Schengen integration, lamenting the huge financial losses caused by long waits.

“Romanian carriers lose billions of euros every year, simply because of long waiting times at borders,” said UNTRR Secretary General Radu Dinescu.

According to the union, truckers typically wait eight to 16 hours at the border with Hungary and 20 to 30 hours at the Bulgarian border, with peaks of three days.

Bulgarian businesses have also expressed anger at what they see as slow progress.

“Only 3 percent of Bulgarian goods are transported by air and sea, the remaining 97 percent by land,” said Vasil Velev, president of the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association (BICA), in comments quoted by the AFP news agency.

With reporting from AP and AFP

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