Schengen celebrates, prepares for enlargement

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Bulgaria and Romania have both moved closer to Schengen area as the European Commission today (14 June) marks the 25th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement, providing for the gradual abolition of frontier checks at their common borders with other EU countries.

Bulgaria and Romania, the EU's latest newcomers, came closer to joining the Schengen border-free zone last week after the European Parliament's civil liberties committee approved a Council decision to allow Sofia and Bucharest to join the SIS, the Schengen Infornation System database.

The step, seen as a milestone towards accession to the Schengen area, will be completed on 18 June following a vote in plenary in Strasbourg.

Both Bulgaria and Romania have set themselves the target of joining the Schengen space in 2011. Until 2001, Bulgarian and Romanian citizens still needed a visa to visit Schengen countries. Last December, the visa requirement was lifted for Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro too, and the process is expected to continue with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania (EURACTIV 27/05/10).

Speaking in Sofia recently, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Bulgaria could count on Italy's support for the EU newcomer's speedy accession to Schengen, wrote Dnevnik, EURACTIV's partner publication in Bulgaria.

In the meantime, European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström marked on Friday the anniversary of the Schengen process, which in fact began life outside the EU framework, being later taken on board the bloc's acquis with the Treaty of Amsterdam, which entered into force in 1999.

Schengen has become one of the most powerful symbols of the EU's capacity to improve the lives of its citizens, Malmström said. She referred to when she was growing up in Gothenburg and caught the ferry to Denmark, which was about as far as she could go without a passport.

"Now Swedes can drive over the Öresund Bridge [linking Sweden to Denmark] and carry on all the way to southern Italy," she exclaimed.

But she also warned that with the opening of borders, more efforts were needed between law enforcement authorities to fight serious crime.

On the 25th anniversary of the Schengen Treaty, the leader of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said: "Together with the euro, Schengen is probably the most successful and tangible result achieved during the last three decades of EU integration."

"Borders, which were dramatically kept in the past, have been peacefully lifted, paving the way to more cooperation and opportunities for our citizens. Today's EU teenagers have grown up without a clue about the former long queues at customs, and all EU citizens can fully enjoy freedom of movement within almost all Europe," he added. 

Schulz called for Schengen to serve as an example for lifting barriers in other fields.

"It is no longer time to get back to that past, putting up new national borders. Quite the contrary. EU governments are today called on again to show vision and move on to new Schengen-like achievements in the field of socio-economic and administrative cooperation, lifting the too many existing borders EU citizens still come across moving in Europe," he stated.

Schengen is a village at the border between Luxembourg, France and Germany, where on 14 June 1985 an agreement to gradually abolish checks at common borders was signed between those countries, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Gradually, the process was taken further and in 1995 border controls were abolished between Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

Today the Schengen border-free zone consists of 25 Schengen member states: EU countries Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as the three associated non-EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

The UK and Ireland decided to stay outside the Schengen area.

Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus only partially apply the Schengen acquis at the moment and checks are therefore still carried out at the borders with those three member states.

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