Air Schengen – progress or precedent?

Congratulations are in order for Romania and Bulgaria as they join the Schengen area, with the lifting of maritime and air border controls after years in the waiting room. However, there is a catch to this long-awaited moment. In their new entry on the IDM Blog, Sophia Beiter and Sebastian Schäffer explain what is problematic about this solution and why its gravity is not as substantial as announced.

Romania, Bulgaria and Austria have apparently made progress in their negotiations on the accession of the two Black Sea countries to the Schengen area. It has been reported that Austria may agree to the establishment of the so-called “Air Schengen” for Bulgaria and Romania as early as March 2024, which was proposed by the Federal Minister of the Interior Gerhard Karner earlier this month.

What is “Air Schengen”?

Partial Schengen entry by air would mean that passengers from Romania and Bulgaria would no longer have to fly to other Schengen countries via the international terminal. In terms of air (and sea) transport, Bulgaria and Romania would therefore be part of the Schengen area. However, border controls by land would continue.

In principle, opening the borders for air traffic represents progress in the protracted Schengen accession negotiations and is therefore to be welcomed. Nevertheless, “Air Schengen” does not replace full Schengen membership.

Why “Air Schengen” is not enough:

1. The agreement comes rather late, especially in view of the fact that the European Commission declared Bulgaria’s and Romania’s readiness to join the Schengen area back in 2011. A compromise like Schengen entry by air and/or sea could therefore have been struck over a decade ago and especially helped to avoid the diplomatic faux pas from last December, when Austria vetoed the accession. However, there is a strong possibility that the decision was ultimately not taken by Karner, but in the Federal Chancellery. In any case, such a compromise could potentially set a dangerous precedent. If additional barriers are added to the criteria that need to be fulfilled e.g. to join Schengen, this could ultimately be extended to other policy areas or enlargement in general. This compromise therefore not only creates an additional possibility to veto and thus extort countries but also contributes to a multi-layered, potentially two-class EU, which adds unnecessary complexity as well as frustration.

2. Border controls in air traffic affect far fewer people and are far less problematic in terms of waiting times, bureaucracy and CO2 emissions. Business travellers and tourists to and from Bulgaria and Romania may have less waiting time at the airport, but trucks will continue to get stuck at border controls for long periods of time. Even with the (mostly questionable) reintroduced border controls among Schengen members, the average waiting time between Upper Austria and Bavaria, for instance, is 20 minutes, compared to a mean six hours at the border to Romania and/or Bulgaria.

3. Austria has announced a number of conditions for the implementation of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s partial Schengen accession: an increase in the Frontex mission; more money, personnel and material for the protection of external borders; and that Romania and Bulgaria take in more asylum seekers, particularly from Afghanistan and Syria. While stricter border controls could be accepted by Romania and Bulgaria, the last demand is logistically and politically rather unrealistic. In mid-December, Prime Minister Denkov still vehemently rejected this “migrants for Schengen” offer. It also undermines to a certain extent the deal struck just over a week before on 20 December at the European Parliament, which commits the national governments of member states to show more solidarity and share responsibility regarding asylum and migration.

For more on the topic watch the discussion: The Future of the Schengen Area: Exploring its Enlargement.

Read the op-ed (in German) in Die Presse.

Eines der drängendsten Themen unserer Zeit

Warum das österreichische Veto gegen den Schengen-Beitritt von Bulgarien und Rumänien aus vielen Gründen kurzsichtig ist, erklären Sophia Beiter und Sebastian Schäffer im Gastkommentar in DiePresse.

Lesen Sie es hier.


Der Gastkommentar wurde in internationalen Medien rezipiert:





IDM at the youth event “Young Danube Bridges”

On 19 September, Sophia Beiter attended the event “Young Danube Bridges” at the Collegium Hungaricum in Vienna. Organized by the regional cultural advisor from the Danube Swabian Central Musuem in Ulm, the seminar was part of the project “International Youth Encounters in the Danube Region” and aimed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and ideas on key issues concerning the area. 

Participants from Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova came together to learn about the EU Strategy for the Danube Region. The young people, who are all learning German, presented their countries, brought some typical food from their region and gathered knowledge about the Danube region during creative games and interactive activities. Alongside the IDM, several cultural institutes and embassies of the respective countries were present at the event. 

Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria 2023

Read the briefing by Sophia Beiter here:


Watch the Short Insight on Bulgaria’s new government here:

IDM Short Insights 25: Bulgaria’s New Government: Pro-European, Yet Divided

Two months after the parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, a new government has finally been formed. The conservative centre-right alliance GERB-SDS and the liberal alliance “Change Continues – Democratic Bulgaria” will form a joint 18-month government with rotating prime ministers. First, Nikolay Denkov from the liberals will become prime minister. After nine months Mariya Gabriel from GERB-SDS will succeed him. The new Bulgarian government is expected to pursue a pro-European agenda. At the same time, the alliances will have to bridge their differences to provide long-term stability for Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s New Government: Pro-European, Yet Divided 

Bulgaria has formed a new government. For many this may come as a surprise and relief at the same time. The elections in April 2023 marked the fifth parliamentary election within a span of only 2 years. Now the winner of the election, the conservative centre-right alliance GERB-SDS, and the liberal alliance “Change Continues – Democratic Bulgaria” have reached an agreement. They will establish an 18-month joint government with rotating prime ministers. In a vote in parliament on 6 June, the government was confirmed with 131 out of 200 votes. First, the liberal’s former Education Minister, Nikolay Denkov, will assume the role of Prime Minister. After nine months he will be succeeded by former EU Commissioner Marija Gabriel from the conservative GERB-SDS.  

Bulgaria is in urgent need of stable governance. Whether the new government can provide long-term stability remains to be seen. The negotiations between the alliances were challenging. During the election campaign, the liberals firmly rejected any idea of a coalition with the conservatives. Talks even experienced a temporary freeze due to a leaked video of the liberals’ internal discussions. The deep divisions and lack of trust between the alliances are evident. But they also have some common goals. The new government will pursue a pro-European agenda. Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen and the Eurozone are expected to be among the government’s primary objectives. Both alliances also support providing military aid to Ukraine. Regarding domestic concerns, a comprehensive reform of the judiciary system and combating corruption will be given top priority. It is now up to Denkov and Gabriel to overcome their differences.  

Balkan nach Europa – sofort!

Erhard Busek (Vizekanzler a.D. und Vorsitzender des Instituts für den Donauraum und Mitteleuropa – IDM in Wien) und Sebastian Schäffer (Geschäftsführer IDM) fordern die sofortige Aufnahme aller Westbalkanstaaten in die EU. Ihr Plädoyer verbinden sie mit “Gschichtln” über Grenzen, Glauben und Grausamkeiten, über Fabeln, Frieden und Fußball. So bilden die persönlichen Erlebnisse und Erinnerungen der Autoren auch ein Zeugnis ihrer Zeit.

Pushbacks, vetoes, boycotts… What will the Schengen dispute mean for CEE?

On December 8th, Austria blocked EU members Romania and Bulgaria from joining the Schengen area, quoting fears of uncontrolled irregular migration as a main explanation. In response, in both countries, calls for a boycott of Austrian companies followed. What lies behind Austria’s veto and what consequences will it have for the EU and the region? Why can individual states block decisions of that magnitude for other EU members? Do we witness another face of Euroscepticism, in which “vetoism” is a tool of countering supranationalism? Finally, what measures should be taken to improve the decision-making processes at the EU-level? 

We discussed these and other questions together with: 

Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, former Prime Minister of Romania

Vladislava Gubalova, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Global Europe, GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Daniela Apaydin, Research Associate, Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe

Sebastian Schäffer, Managing Director, Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe 


Malwina Talik, Research Associate, Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe.

Watch the discussion here: