Bulgaria’s Denkov and Austria’s Karner FRENEMIES in Schengen Accession talks

  • On 31st March 2024 Bulgaria, together with Romania, will join the Schengen Area, but only by air and sea, renouncing to the economic benefits provided by the removal of internal border checks on land.  
  • Bulgaria’s full access to the Area has been hampered by Austrian Interior Minister, Karner, who displays rhetorical concerns about the possible increase in illegal migration and cross-border crimes given by the alleged Bulgarian inability in ensuring effective external border control on land. 
  • Although Bulgaria’s accession to Schengen would provide the country with significant economic growth potential, Denkov justified such request with a securitarian narrative, adhering to the wider pattern used by both the EU and its Member States of justifying European policies with security discourses rather than with economic rationale.

Why are Denkov and Karner Frenemies?

Answer: Denkov and Karner are in bitter relations given Karner’s enduring veto over Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession to the Schengen Area, which has been overcome by a compromise that is unfavourable for the two accessing countries.

On the 31st March 2024, Bulgaria and Romania will join the Schengen Area – an area encompassing 27 European countries where internal border checks are abolished and there are harmonised external border checks and visa policy. Their application, sent in 2012, has been postponed and vetoed by the European Council for more than a decade because some States – mainly Austria and the Netherlands – were worried about the capabilities of these states to ensure effective external border checks.

Indeed, Bulgaria and Romania find themselves at the very eastern border of the EU, and thus their membership in Schengen will render them the states entitled to control who and what enters the Area, and thus what will be free to move inside it. 

In particular, Gehrard Karner, Austria’s Minister of Interior, strongly opposed Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession to Schengen both in 2022 and 2023. Nevertheless, a compromise has been found thanks to the negotiation done by the Spanish Presidency of the European Council, which proposed to formally include Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen Area, but only by air and sea, meaning that border checks will remain over land borders. This compromise, although guaranteeing Bulgaria and Romania access to the Area without internal borders, is a mixed success because their formal membership to the Area will require them to conduct additional border control tasks, but without granting them the free movement on land, the main vector for significant economic advantages. 

What does Denkov want?

Answer: Although using a political narrative focused on security, Denkov aims at accessing both the Schengen Area and the Eurozone in order to improve Bulgarian economic conditions amidst an political and economic crisis.

Although being academician by profession Nikolaj Denkov was elected Prime Minister of Bulgaria on 6th June 2023 with a clear political agenda: bring back stability to the country by entering the Schengen Area and the Eurozone. Since 2020 Bulgaria has been shaken by the grassroots protests against corruption in the political sphere and the economic regression followed afterwards. Although such political and economic unrest impeded Bulgaria from adopting the Euro, Denokv succeeded in finalizing Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen Area, although only in a partial manner that prevents the country from enjoying the positive economic effects of the Schengen Area – the free movement of people, goods, services and capitals on land.

Indeed, Bulgaria would mostly benefit from the removal of internal border checks on land, since its economy is mostly based on imports and exports via land. The costs that carriers are estimated to face only by having to wait at borders is around 100 million euros per year. Schengen on land would not only decrease expenses and uncertainty for exporters but would also increase trade with other Schengen members, and boost business opportunities, investments and employment.

Forecasts predict that the removal of internal borders on land increases trade between two countries by 0.1% per year. If taking into consideration trade between Bulgaria and Germany, which in 2022 amounted to almost 12 billion euros, it would face an increase of 1.2 million euros yearly – an increment that Denkov cannot leave unconsidered. 

Instead of justifying the access with an economic rationale, Denkov insisted on the benefits that the access to Schengen will provide to the security of both the EU and NATO, stressing how a bigger Area would reinforce the mutual trust and unity between Member States and render the Union stronger through reinforced protection of external borders and police cooperation. Such political narrative based on security and EU internal cohesion might not express Bulgaria’s main – economic – interests in joining Schengen, but represents the narrative most frequently used at the EU level, as both Karner’s declarations and the most recent EU security strategy display. As such, Denkov’s discourses seem more addressed to other European leaders than to the Bulgarian electorate.

What does Karner want?

Answer: Karner wants to improve Austrian security by impeding what he deems ‘unreliable’ states to patrol Schengen’s external borders.

Gerhard Karner, Austria’s Minister of Interior since 2021, shares and follows the same political agenda of the current Austrian Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, who repeatedly opposed the entrance of Bulgaria and Romania into Schengen. The two authorities, both part of the conservative People’s Party of Austria, frequently expressed concern about these states’ ability to ensure the protection of Schengen’s external borders, since they have been proven unable to provide their own security and relied heavily on EU’s support. 

Karner sustains that “Schengen must become better and not bigger” and calls for the improvement of the capabilities of Schengen’s members in dealing with increasing refugee flows and transnational crime instead of giving additional tasks and responsibilities to ‘unreliable’ states. Karner is particularly keen to protect Austria from the arrival of illegal migrants, which in 2023 amounted to 280,000 persons, and from the effects of transnational crime, as human trafficking and smuggling as well as drug trade. 

Nevertheless, two important remarks must be included. First, illegal arrivals, although still considerable, are more than three times lower than in 2015 (1.04 million in 2015 and 280.000 in 2023) and the majority of people illegally crossing Schengen’s borders arrived from the Mediterranean route (157.000) and only a residual part from the Eastern route that passes through Bulgaria (60.000). Second, human trafficking and drug trade are not the major sources of crime in Europe, rather, financial crimes and cyber-attacks constitute a more worryingly threat for European states.

Thus, Karner’s concerns about illegal migration and crime that would come from and through Bulgaria represent only a rhetorical and partial picture of the current situation, which instead displays more alarming challenges coming from inside the EU or from other states already part of Schengen.

What is Denkov doing? 

Answer: Denkov is requesting and welcoming different training and support missions held by Frontex in order to improve Bulgarian capabilities and prove to other Schengen members that Bulgaria is reliable in ensuring Schengen security.

The path towards Schengen membership has not been a smooth and direct one for Bulgaria, and its various presidents had to engage in multiple EU-led support missions to meet the level of border control and protection requested by Schengen membership. The EU has been present in Bulgaria since 2016 through the deployment of Frontex units, which provided technical, operational, and financial support to local authorities to adjust Bulgarian border control to the common standards and methods used in the EU. 

In particular, in 2023 Denkov requested and implemented the ‘Pilot Project’, a comprehensive support plan in which Frontex, Europol and the European Union Asylum Agency train and sustain Bulgarian authorities in enhancing control at the Bulgarian borders, increasing the protection of asylum seekers and improving the use of digital technologies to register and control human movements at the borders. The project has been widely supported by the main EU bodies, which look forward to improving Bulgaria’s border control and migration management in order to render it a reliable EU country able to ensure protection for itself and the Union as a whole. 

Notwithstanding the central role that EU bodies had in shaping Bulgaria’s border control policies, the country in the last two years faced widespread and harsh criticism about the alleged violations of human rights at the borders, the use of violence by state police and the use of pushbacks as a method to prevent migrants from reaching Bulgaria’s – thus EU’s and from this month also Schengen – soil. 

What is Karner doing?

Answer: Karner is using the power of veto in the European Council to make Bulgaria and Romania do what he deems necessary to guarantee Austria’s security.

As Minister of the Interior […] I am responsible for the security in the country” said Karner while justifying his veto at the European Council against Bulgaria’s and Romania’s access to Schengen. In his opinion assigning such a delicate security task as the patrol of what enters and exits an area without internal checks as Schengen to countries that lack sufficient technical capabilities to ensure comprehensive control over borders amounts to a serious security threat for other countries since illegal migrants and criminals could enter – and thus freely move – into the Schengen soil more easily. 

Karner’s stance precisely reflects the political agenda of his party, the People’s Party of Austria, which is based on ‘anti-immigrant’ discourses and policies. Given Bulgaria’s proximity to Turkiye, its exposure to several migratory routes and its acknowledged lack of capabilities in border control, the opening of the Schengen Area to Bulgaria appears alarming in Karner’s eyes. 

Hence, Kanrner strongly insisted on two conditions for Austria’s approval of Bulgaria’s and Romania’s access to Schengen, which have been codified in the tripartite declaration that Denkov, Karner and Ciolacu – Romania’s Prime Minister – signed on 30th December 2023. Firstly, Karner demanded the increase of the already present financial support from the European Commission, together with operational and technical assistance from Frontex at the Bulgarian-Turkish and Romanian-Serbian borders. Secondly, Karner requested a more adherent respect to the Dublin Regulation, especially regarding the relocation of asylum seekers and greater surveillance at Schengen’s internal borders to avoid the ‘secondary’ movements of migrants inside the borderless area.

Who is winning and what does it mean to you?

Answer: The buzzword used for both justifying and opposing Schengen enlargement has been security, confirming that European integration nowadays is advanced more by security concerns than by economic interests – at least at the rhetoric level. 

Although the Tripartite Declaration seems rewarding both Karner’s request for more control at the external borders of the EU and Denkov’s and Ciolacu’s desire to join the Schengen Area, the economic and financial gains rewards provided to Bulgaria and Romania by the partial accession to Schengen are less beneficial than the political gains rewards that Austria will enjoy in terms of protection against illegal migration. Karner managed to maintain such inflexible line since the decision over Schengen enlargement is taken by the European Council, which is composed of the Ministries of the Member States and decides with unanimity on sensible matters.

Inside the European Council Karner was supported by Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, who shared the same concerns about external border control until December 2023, when he approved the positive results of the fact-checking mission over Bulgaria’s implementation of the Schengen acquis held by the European Commission

On the other hand, both the European Commission and the European Parliament have for long sustained Bulgaria’s and Romania’s access to Schengen, stressing how the two states have been fulfilling the conditions for Schengen’s membership since 2011. In particular, in the 2021 Strategy towards a fully functioning and resilient Schengen area, the Commission affirmed how their entrance would increase the overall security of the EU and mutual trust between its Member States. 

Such narrative focused on security is also the main cornerstone of the Strategic Compass, EU’s main strategic document redacted by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in 2022. The case of this year’s Schengen enlargement expresses how security has become a buzzword for justifying both EU’s policies and the eventual opposition against them. This confirms that despite the central role that economic factors have in determining the benefits of certain European policies, security both in the Union and at the national level has become the main rationale for nowadays European integration.