Austria's chancellor has said he would lobby the European Union for €2 billion in funding for Bulgaria to strengthen its border with Turkey. Despite pushback, Bulgaria's president says he's hopeful his country would join the Schengen group of countries in the foreseeable future.
During his visit to Bulgaria, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced on Monday (January 23) that he opposes the enlargement of the European Union's visa-free Schengen area due to his country's concerns over irregular migration.
The Austrian leader criticized the bloc's Schengen system, which allows EU citizens visa-free travel but could encourage irregular migration, he said.
Bulgaria is hoping to join Europe's passport-free zone in October. Austria vetoed Bulgaria's and Romania's Schengen bid at the end of 2022 to curb irregular migration across the external EU border.
Austria supports billion-dollar border controls
Nehammer and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev visited a regional border police coordination center in the south-eastern Bulgarian town of Elhovo.
Radev said Bulgaria needed further financial assistance to boost border security.
The Bulgarian government has requested €2 billion in EU funding to purchase helicopters, off-road vehicles and other technical equipment to develop the border's infrastructure.
Nehammer said he is in favor of supporting Bulgaria with €2 billion ($2.2 billion) to fortify the EU's external border with Turkey. He praised Bulgaria's efforts to strengthen border controls as "the protection of the Bulgarian-Turkish border is actually also the protection of Austria's borders."
Austria calls for EU-wide support
Bulgaria has bolstered the EU's external border with Turkey since 2017 with a 234-kilometer metal fence financed by the European Union, but smugglers still manage to find border loopholes.
According to the Interior Ministry on Monday, 16,767 migrants who entered Bulgaria irregularly or who were illegally staying in the country were detained in 2022. Most of the migrants came from Afghanistan and Syria. In 2021, the ministry counted 10,799 irregular migrants.
"We are facing a powerful, well-organized network for smuggling migrants," Radev said, adding that migration pressure from Turkey has increased with smugglers becoming more aggressive.
Radev said he's still hopeful Bulgaria would join the Schengen group in the foreseeable future.
"Schengen embodies one of the most important values of the union – freedom of movement. And apart from security, there are economic and other dimensions, and I think it is not fair that Romania and Bulgaria are outside Schengen, because our economies also lose from this,'' he added.
Nehammer also appealed to EU-member states to adopt legislative changes to allow border police officers to act quickly and effectively, as well as a standard policy to dissuade irregular migration.
"We also need a clear signal at European level that the front-line countries in the face of migrant pressure are not left alone to deal with this problem, that they are not left alone with the asylum procedures, and that this is a pan-European legal problem,'' he said.
With AP and dpa