Ministers from the 27 EU member states are set to vote on expanding the Schengen visa-free zone to include members Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia on Thursday.

However, the chances for Romania and Bulgaria to join the zone, which includes most EU states as well as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, looked slim following comments from Austria.

A decision on expanding the Schengen area requires unanimous approval, but Austria’s Interior Minister Gerhard Karner said on Thursday ahead of the vote, “I will vote today against the Schengen enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria.”

“I think it is wrong that a system that does not work in many places should be enlarged,” he added.

Europe split over border controls

Romania and Bulgaria joined the bloc in 2007 and have been trying to enter the Schengen zone for years.

Concerns over organized crime, unauthorized migration and security have held up their bids. Last month, the European Commission ruled that all three Schengen candidates now meet the necessary criteria for joining, with the European Parliament also voting to give its support.

Countries in the Schengen Agreement
Ireland, and the UK before Brexit, were also not members of Schengen while still being part of the EU

“We are stronger, not weaker, through Schengen enlargement,” Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said on Thursday. “Enlarging Schengen means more and better controls, not less.”

While Croatia’s bid looks set to go forward without opposition, Austria has made it clear it will veto the other two candidates.

Karner’s German counterpart Nancy Faeser questioned Austria’s opposition saying, “I cannot yet understand the vote of my Austrian colleague.” She said she hoped to convince him to change his mind.

Why do some EU members oppose expanding Schengen?

Unauthorized migration has been cited as the main sticking point for Austria which has previously reported the arrival of more than 100,000 unauthorized migrants this year.

Vienna has little trust in Romanian and Bulgarian border controls and thinks that removing checks on people coming from those countries will open the country up to move unauthorized immigration.

Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said on Wednesday that he had been holding top-level meetings with Austrian leaders to try to ease their concerns.

“Illegal migration is politically very sensitive in many member states, but blocking Romania’s accession to Schengen will not bring the answers Austria wants,” Ciuca said.

The Netherlands, Hungary and possibly Sweden — thanks to the influence of the far-right Swedish Democrats — have also hinted that they may be ready to delay the inclusion of one or more of the candidate countries into Schengen.

ab/msh (AP, AFP)



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