Bordering the Adriatic Sea, the touristic country of Croatia – with its diverse landscapes and idyllic beaches – joined the EU back in 2013. Six years later, and four full years after applying to enter Schengen, the European Commission is ready to welcome the Balkan into the area. This addition would be the first expansion of the free-travel zone since Switzerland was admitted more than ten years ago in 2008.
The area is named after the original 1985 Schengen Agreement signed in Schengen, Luxembourg, and is made up of 26 European countries that have officially abolished passport and other border controls. Twenty-two out of 28 EU member states participate; those who do not are legally obliged to join the zone at some point in the future.
“It’s an area that comes with freedoms and privileges but also with great responsibilities, joining this club is not something that we take lightly…”, said Greek Commissioner Dimitri Avramopoulos about the European Commissions’ recent approval.
“The future Schengen accession of Croatia, but also Bulgaria and Romania is all the more relevant and necessary given the migratory and security challenges of today”, continued Avramopoulos. The Balkan’s approval is a sore point for these two states, however, as Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU six years earlier than Croatia but are still waiting to be allowed into the area.
Joining Schengen is no easy feat. In order to do so, Croatia first needed to convince Brussels that it was able to effectively manage the bloc’s external border – a particularly sensitive issue since the start of the migrant crisis. EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference in Strasbourg that “Croatia has taken the measures to ensure that the necessary conditions are met (to join Schengen).”
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker announced “I would like the European Commission to give a recommendation before the end of our term in office for Croatia’s Schengen zone accession”, after successful talks with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.
“I commend Croatia for its efforts and perseverance to meet all the necessary conditions to join Schengen”, Juncker said in a statement. “This is why I trust the member states will take the right steps for Croatia to become a full Schengen member soon.”
Joining the area is positive for both Croatia and the EU, as membership would allow for greater political and economic integration and reduce delays in moving people and goods across borders. These changes are sure to provide a major boost to the Croatian tourism sector, which accounts for nearly one-fifth of its economic output. Croatian tourists would attain greater access to the rest of Europe, increasing opportunities for success to their tourist sectors.
Moreover, opening borders is good for trade, while closing them would be horrifically expensive. A report from the Bertelsmann Foundation estimated that the reintroduction of permanent border controls would lead to a growth loss of 470 billion euros in total for the EU until 2025.
Juncker also supports Croatia’s bid to join the European Exchange Mechanism (ERM-2), which is a two-year long window that occurs before a country is permitted to switch from their currency to the euro. This necessary waiting period is implemented to ensure the country in question has a suitably stable currency and economy, and is assessed by the European Central Bank. “I believe Croatia is ready to join the ERM-2”, Juncker said.
Full Approval Not Guaranteed
Croatia still needs to attain approval from all member states to join either of these measures. If that happens soon, Croatia could be a part of Schengen by early 2020 and join the ERM-2 next year as well. EU support, however, is not guaranteed. Despite the European Commission’s recommendation, France blocked membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania this past October, and may do the same to Croatia’s bid to join Schengen and the eurozone.
French President Emmanuel Macron declared earlier this year that Schengen was not well suited to handle the challenges posed by mass migration – an issue he called the “second great European struggle” after climate change. Schengen “does not work anymore”, Macron stated. “We must profoundly rethink our development policy and our migration policy, even if it is a Schengen with fewer states.”
Slovenia, who joined the EU in 2004, was also less than pleased with the EU Commission’s approval and called Juncker’s endorsement just before the end of his term a “political decision”.
Prime Minister of Slovenia, Marjan Sarec, has said that Croatia should first implement the arbitration ruling concerning its border dispute with Slovenia before entering Schengen, which concerns jurisdiction over part of the border by the Adriatic Sea. “We regret that the European Commission decided on such an important matter, the assessment of Croatia’s preparedness to join Schengen just before the end of its term and that it adopted a political decision”, Sarec remarked.
The Slovenian Prime Minister also pointed out that the country needs to step up on combating migration challenges, considering that in 2019 alone, neighbouring Slovenia received more than 12,000 migrants entering from Croatia’s border. The Balkan region remains a popular route for migrants into Europe. Humanitarian groups estimate that there are over 5,500 people seeking access from the Bosnian border.
“Control over the EU’s external borders is the most demanding aspect of our preparations”, the Croatian Interior Secretary Terezija Gras told Reuters earlier this week. “We have already fully equipped our border with Serbia and now we’re doing it on the border with Bosnia.”
“We have shown very clearly that we are up to the job, we have one of the strongest border police forces in Europe. We are capable of protecting what is not only the border of Croatia but also the EU. We have done a lot since the 2015 crisis”, she added.
Alternatively, there is evidence that Croatia has been overzealously policing their borders and deporting migrants back to Bosnia against EU conventions. Earlier this year, Amnesty International said European governments are not only “turning a blind eye to vicious assaults by the Croatian police”, but also funding their activities as part of efforts to improve security.
If Slovenia or France choose to veto the addition, Croatia’s bid for Schengen admission will come to an end. This response would be a major contrast to the Balkan’s pro-EU-enlargement stance, which Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman recently spoke in favour of.
“We regret the decision of some countries which didn’t support launching the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania because we strongly pushed for launching the negotiation process”, Radman said, speaking against France’s anti-enlargement position. He intends to raise the issue again in 2020, and hopes the topic will be on the EU’s agenda during a planned summit in Zagreb next year.
The Limits of Schengen
Schengen has found itself weakened over the last few years. In response to both the migration crisis and the wave of terrorist attacks that occurred in 2015 and 2016, several EU member states implemented internal border checks and security controls. “Saving Schengen is a race against time and we are determined to win that race”, Donald Tusk said back in 2016.
“These controls are even in place at borders between Schengen members, such as France and Spain”. notes Marco Stefan, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
With populism still poised as a major political factor and immigration once again on the rise, many of these security measures are unlikely to be rolled back. Hungary provides a stark example, with its Prime Minister Viktor Orban garnering political capital by touting his new razor-wire border fence with Serbia. Orban’s embrace of aggressive, anti-migrant rhetoric directly conflicts with the open border policy that Schengen allows.
A report was published last year about the Schengen area’s dysfunctions, with members of the European Parliament concluding that internal checks are still in place because “we are paying the price of problems that are outside the scope of Schengen, such as asylum policy”,
But Carlos Coelho, a Portuguese member of the European People’s Party and lead author of the study, holds a different stance, writing: “The Schengen area is one of the greatest achievements of the European Union. National governments made Schengen into the scapegoat for the failures of security policies. Yet, Schengen is not the problem, it is the solution. If Schengen perishes, the Europe of citizens that we have today will vanish.”