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SOFIA/BUCHAREST — Romania and Bulgaria have formally joined — at least partially — Europe’s visa-free Schengen travel zone as of March 31, a move widely hailed in both countries as well as the EU after years of painful negotiations.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov on March 31 described the event as a “big victory” for his nation of 6.6 million people.

“Bulgaria is at a historic moment, joining the Schengen Area, and this is not just a political cliché,” said Denkov, who submitted his resignation this month but remains in office until a new government is formed.

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

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

“Bulgaria is becoming a community of millions of people traveling freely, with benefits for business, tourism, and culture. Let’s all move forward together to the ultimate goal of abolishing checks at land borders,” she said.

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

“We have a clear and firmly assumed government plan for full accession to the Schengen Area by the end of the year,” he stated.

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 area of free movement in the world.”

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

As of midnight, there is now free movement for those arriving and departing on flights and by boat to both countries, but not by road. That’s because Austria objected, arguing opening land routes to both Romania and Bulgaria could make it easier for migrants to enter other EU states.

Denkov said a “suitable political moment” was being sought to determine when to drop checks at land borders.

“Maybe after the elections in Austria [in the autumn] or for the European Parliament [June 9],” he said.

Both Bulgaria and Romania, which started negotiations to enter Schengen back in 2011, are hoping land borders will be opened 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 — 25 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.

Romania and Bulgaria are the only EU member states not to have full Schengen benefits.

Croatia — which joined the bloc in 2013, six years after Romania and Bulgaria entered in 2007 — was accepted fully in the Schengen zone in January 2023.

Romania has said that it will carry out random checks to guard against false travel documents and to combat human trafficking.

For Romania, the change will impact work at its 17 commercial airports, which in 2023 handled nearly 25 million passengers, RFE/RL’s Romanian Service reports. More than 70 percent of all flights are to other Schengen nations, airport representatives told RFE/RL.

The country’s Otopeni airport near the capital, Bucharest, serves as the biggest hub for Schengen flights.

While the move has been welcomed in both countries, the remaining border checks on roadways has angered others, namely truck drivers, who face long waits at borders with their EU neighbors.

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

“Romanian haulers have lost billions of euros every year, just because of long waiting times at borders,” UNTRR Secretary-General Radu Dinescu said.

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

Bulgarian businesses have also voiced anger over what they deem 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 by AP and AFP

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