The EU member states' interior ministers on Thursday unanimously decided to give a go-ahead to Croatia to join the Schengen Area, enabling the country to become the 27th member of the largest border-free area in the world on January 1, 2023.
As a result of this unanimous decision, in less than a month border controls will be abolished at Croatia’s land and sea border crossings and, in the spring, at airports.
On Thursday, the interior ministers of the 22 EU member states that are also Schengen members made a final decision on the “full application of the Schengen acquis communaitaire in the Republic of Croatia,” which means the abolition of border controls towards the Schengen Area.
As of 1 January, border controls will be abolished at the Croatian land and sea borders with the countries of the Schengen Area, that is, with Slovenia and Hungary, and from 26 March 2023 at the airports.
The reason for the different dates is technical – it is necessary to adjust the exits for passengers at the airports because flights within the Schengen Area are treated as domestic flights. This is always done when daylight savings begins, 26 March 2023.
As of 1 January, there will be 27 member states in the Schengen Area, of which 23 are EU members and Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein are all members of the European Free Trade Association.
Bulgaria and Romania are EU members that are still outside the Schengen Area. They have been waiting for a positive decision for 11 years, which was again not approved on Thursday. Cyprus is not part of Schengen as it does not control its entire territory, as well as Ireland, which does not want to join Schengen because it does not wish to introduce border controls with Northern Ireland.
The Schengen Area is the largest area without internal border controls, with almost 420 million people.
Close to two million people travel to work across the internal border every day, and in some areas, cross-border commuters make up a third of the workforce.
The absence of border controls within the Schengen Area brings considerable savings. It facilitates trade, which is especially important for Croatia, given that its strong tourism sector will profit because most tourists come from Schengen countries, which will no longer have to wait hours to cross the border.
Croatia joined the euro and Schengen areas in the tenth year of its EU membership
In the tenth year of its membership in the EU, Croatia simultaneously became a member of the Schengen Area and the euro area. The changeover to the euro is also set for 1 January.
To enter the Schengen Area, an aspirant is supposed to undergo evaluations to establish whether that aspirant can take responsibility for the control of external borders on behalf of other Schengen Area countries, efficiently cooperate with the police authorities of other Schengen Area member states to maintain a high level of security after the abolition of border controls, apply Schengen rules, such as control of land, sea and air borders (airports).
A Schengen Area member state also has to issue Schengen visas, enable police cooperation and protection of personal data, and be connected to and use the Schengen Information System.
Schengen evaluation launched in 2015
After two years since it joined the EU in mid-2013, Croatia was ready to start the Schengen evaluation.
On 6 March 2015, the Croatian government sent a letter in which it pointed out that it was ready to start undergoing evaluations in all relevant areas of the Schengen acquis communautaire from 1 July of the same year.
The evaluation process started in June 2016 and ended in May 2019.
On 22 October 2019, the European Commission confirmed that Croatia met all the technical requirements for Schengen accession.
The EU interior ministers unanimously confirmed this assessment at their meeting on 9 December 2021. These conclusions are a procedurally necessary condition for making a final decision on entering the Schengen Area.
After that, the next step was the proposal of the final decision on the abolition of border controls between Croatia and the countries of the Schengen Area.
At the end of its rotating presidency, on 29 June this year, the French presidency initiated the process for a final decision.
Then, at the meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper), it was decided to send the draft decision on the “full application of the Schengen acquis communautaire in the Republic of Croatia” to the European Parliament with an accompanying letter to the President of the Parliament, Roberta Metsola, requesting the delivery of the opinion as soon as possible.
In this case, the opinion of the European Parliament is not binding for the Council. Still, according to the rules of procedure, the Council cannot decide without that opinion, whatever it may be.
On 10 November, at the plenary session in Brussels, the European Parliament overwhelmingly supported Croatia’s entry into the Schengen Area. After that, the only thing left was a unanimous decision by the Schengen countries, and that happened today.
The first in the EU to establish independent supervision of police in cooperation with civil society
The tides of irregular migrants arriving in Europe since 2015 have compelled Croatia to introduce independent supervision of the conduct of police officers along the border. Croatia was the first in the EU to establish police supervision in cooperation with civil society. This step has been made to fend off the allegations by some NGOs about the mistreatment of migrants by the Croatian police.
Croatia has undergone the most comprehensive and detailed evaluation of its readiness for Schengen admission.
In this process, the country has met 281 requirements and recommendations from the eight policy chapters of the Schengen acquis.
Croatia has also invested funds in upgrading the border control and has absorbed EU funds for this purpose.
The country has used €220 million from the EU funds to enhance the technical equipment for border control and the training of police officers.
As many as 6,500 police are engaged to guard the border. Croatia’s EU external border is over 1,350 kilometres long.
The most extensive section of this external border is between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1,011 kilometres. The other areas are the Croatian borders with Serbia and Montenegro.
One of the main achievements of the European project
The Schengen Area is one of the main achievements of the European project. It started in 1985 as an intergovernmental project between five EU countries – France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – and has gradually expanded to become the most extensive free travel area in the world.
Schengen is the name of a small village in Luxembourg, on the border with Germany and France, where the Schengen Agreement and the Schengen Convention were signed in 1985 and 1990, respectively.