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Austria floats Schengen trial balloon to Bulgaria, Romania

Austria — which vetoed the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area last year — said Monday that it was inclined to ease rules for air traffic if Brussels strengthens its external borders. Last December, Austria thwarted the hopes of both Bucharest and Sofia, justifying the vetoes over an influx of asylum seekers that it said could grow if the Schengen zone expanded. “I can imagine that there will be changes in terms of airports for Romania and Bulgaria, but on the other hand there are clear demands (in exchange) for that,” Interior Minister Gerhard Karner told Oe1 public radio on Monday. The conditions include “massively strengthening the protection of (the bloc’s) external border”, keeping land border checks, and transferring “asylum seekers… (back) to Bulgaria and Romania,” Karner said. “Otherwise I will not agree to Air Schengen,” he warned, adding that it was now up to the European Commission. Brussels said it has received Austria’s request and welcomed that “things are moving in a positive direction”. “Discussions nevertheless continue and the Commission is ready to provide its support as necessary,” spokesman Christian Wigand said at a daily press briefing. Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu welcomed the news, saying that “the first step, the most important one, has been taken — Austria is more flexible.” Hopeful that Bucharest might be able to join the Schengen area by next year, Ciolacu said that Vienna’s demands did not “seem exaggerated”. His Bulgarian counterpart Nikolay Denkov said the development was “a step in the right direction”, but refused to be “treated as a second-class state”. After more than 10 years waiting to be admitted into the Schengen zone, Bulgaria and Romania — EU members since 2007 — were yet again turned away at the end of 2022. Austria vetoed both applications, while the Netherlands opposed Bulgaria’s bid. In recent months, many Central European countries have reintroduced exceptional border controls in a bid to curb undocumented migration.

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