Nehammer and Karner visit the Bulgarian  Turkish border on Monday

Nehammer and Karner visit the Bulgarian Turkish border on Monday

On Monday, there will be a demonstration site inspection ahead of the EU migration summit. Austria demands a fence and more money for Frontex. Both Balkan countries are convinced that they can join the Schengen area this year.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Interior Minister Gerhard Karner (both ÖVP) travel to Bulgaria on Sunday night for a spot inspection at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Austria wants to support Bulgaria with border protection, including through EU funds for fencing and more capacity for Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency. Austria vetoed Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen membership in December because of illegal migration.

Nehammer had already announced the visit to Bulgaria when Bulgarian President Rumen Radev visited the New Year concert in Vienna. During his stay at the border and in Sofia, the Chancellor wants to discuss the matter again with Radev on Monday and later also with the Bulgarian Prime Minister Galab Donev. The visit comes two weeks before a special EU summit in Brussels on the topic of migration. Interior Minister Karner met new Frontex head Hans Leijtens in Warsaw on Tuesday.

Disappointed with Austria

The Austrian veto of Schengen caused protests and disappointment in both Bulgaria and Romania. In the case of Bulgaria, the Netherlands also expressed concern about joining Schengen. However, both Balkan countries were convinced that they could join the borderless Schengen area before the end of this year. A later date is considered difficult because of the European elections in 2024. Due to the close interdependence, the EU also wants to include the two countries in Schengen.

Romania announced on Thursday the return of its ambassador to Austria, Emil Hurezeanu, to the post. After Vienna’s veto, Hurezeanu was sent to Bucharest for consultations.

Meanwhile, Greece, which shares a border with Bulgaria, has also started an initiative in the cause. The Greek Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarakis, recently visited Nehammer and Karner in Vienna to promote the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area. Mitarakis also advocates greater EU support for Bulgaria in protecting the EU’s external border.

From the point of view of the EU Commission and the European Parliament, both countries fulfilled all the conditions for joining Schengen. On the other hand, Austria complains that the Schengen system no longer works due to the high number of unregistered migrants.

Austria argues with other numbers

However, there are differences over the numbers put on the line by Austria. Austria argues that more than 100,000 migrants were detained in Austria in 2022. According to the Interior Ministry, 40% came from Turkey via Bulgaria, mainly people from Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Somalia. Bulgarian migration researcher Tihomir Bezlov doubted this and called for a closer look at the number of irregular migrants. The Austrian Ministry of the Interior reacted with a reference to the high number of unreported cases.

EU Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn (ÖVP) also called for clarity on the figures. There are contradictions between the Austrian official information and at the European level, he said. Hahn hopes that “in the relatively foreseeable future both countries can become members of Schengen”. A first step can be taken in the flight area.

The ÖVP has repeatedly denied allegations that Karner had vetoed Schengen for domestic reasons, for example because of Lower Austria’s state elections on 29 January. Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) declared in December that the real problems were with Hungary, “because most of the unrecorded transfers to Austria take place there”.