EU dispatch: Croatia’s entry into the Schengen Zone presents problems as well as opportunities Dispatches
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EU dispatch: Croatia’s entry into the Schengen Zone presents problems as well as opportunities

Mykyta Vorobiov is a student at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. He is currently in Zagreb, Croatia. 

As a Ukrainian correspondent for JURIST now studying at the University of Zagreb, I have observed many differences and similarities between the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The region’s political life has fascinated me since I arrived, and I feel compelled to share stories from the Balkans about how these countries face new challenges and make crucial decisions.

On March 7, the Danish Prime Minister visited Croatia, expressing concerns about Croatia’s membership in the Schengen Zone, particularly regarding migration. Croatia has a 1,350-kilometer-long border with non-EU countries, and after joining Schengen, its government may have to deal with new illegal migration waves. The situation on its borders is worsening, and according to Croatian officials, the scale of the crisis is fast approaching 2015 and 2016 levels. Therefore, it is urgent to implement a comprehensive set of reforms and changes to address the issue.

As of January 1, 2023, Croatia became the 27th member of the Schengen agreement. This means that Croatia has changed its currency from kuna to euro and entered the passport-free travel zone. With no more border control with other Schengen countries, travelling to and from Croatia is more convenient than ever. However, some lesser-known factors should also be considered.

Some people may believe that the EU and Schengen Zone are synonymous, but this is not entirely accurate. Currently, four EU member countries, namely Ireland, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria, are not part of the Schengen zone. The last two countries have been trying to join the agreement since 2011 but have unresolved issues that serve as a barrier. At the same time, some non-EU countries, including Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, are members of this zone.

The Schengen agreement was signed in 1985 as a treaty to unite European countries into one non-border zone. The Schengen Zone is one of the largest zones where member countries agreed to abolish border control. However, the Schengen Zone is not just about borders but also about strengthening economic and security cooperation among members, allowing citizens of member countries to move, live, work and study across borders without any paperwork.

For obvious reasons, these benefits are making more and more countries wish to join the agreement. The path to joining is challenging and requires political and judicial reforms. In 2022, only one country out of three who applied received the right to become a member, and that country was Croatia, where I have the honour to live and study.

Joining the Schengen zone is a significant step towards a new level of cooperation between Croatia and the EU. In 2017, Croatia was granted access to the Schengen Information System (SIS), but only in 2023 were all restrictions on its use lifted. This is a critical point regarding law enforcement since it is more effective. In fact, SIS is a massive database that makes it easier to find missing people, vehicles, etc. Croatia successfully implemented this system, which was one of the most important criteria for joining Schengen.

The new and more advanced level of cooperation between Croatia and other Schengen states, combined with the adoption of a stricter approach to border inspections of non-Schengen countries, is expected to provide significant value for controlling illegal migration.

What does Schengen mean for regular people?

First and foremost, it means the possibility to work, live, and travel through different Schengen states without any additional documents. Earlier, it was necessary to receive a Schengen work visa to work or study there legally. Speaking from personal experience as a student who received this visa, I can claim that this process is long, complicated, and demands a lot of paperwork. The abolition of legal formalities can increase the number of Croatians who will be able to gain new experiences abroad.

Moreover, the increase in police efficiency with SIS directly affects the feeling of safety in the country. According to information from the Eulisa Agency, “SIS II provides authorities with information on people who may have been involved in a serious crime, who may not have the right to enter or stay in the Schengen Area, whose identity has been misused, who are required to assist in judicial procedures, who are missing (both adults and minors).” The conclusion that can be drawn from these facts is that holders of Croatian passports have only benefited from Croatia’s joining the Schengen Zone.

However, the situation is not the same in the context of the country’s structure. What does it mean for Croatia’s legal and economic system? Croatia joined the EU in 2013 when the number of people who supported this decision was lower than 50%. Even now, according to surveys, the percentage of those unsatisfied with the work of EU institutions is extremely high at 62%. Yet, half of the respondents were grateful to the EU for new opportunities. We can see that this aspect is crucial for Croats. Therefore, entering the EU zone with new opportunities will help to increase people’s trust in the EU. The same number of people mentioned economic and safety improvements as things for which they are grateful. It is too early to measure citizens’ satisfaction with this decision now, but entering the Schengen will definitely boost economics, safety, and increase the number of opportunities that are important to Croats and will help to build trust and cooperation.

Changes in economics can be observed through an examination of the inflation level in the country. In December 2022, the level of inflation of the kuna was 13.1%. At the same time, the average euro area inflation rate was 9.2%. Transfer between currencies can help to reduce the inflation level in the country, and it will be one more step to boosting the Croatian economy.

Moreover, according to the assessment of inflation after the euro development, in January 2023, inflation was 0.2% lower than in December 2022. In February, it continued to decrease and is now lower than 12%. The euro is not a panacea, but it might provide an opportunity to slow down the price increase. The Croatian PM mentioned at the ceremony of joining, “Our citizens and the economy will be better protected from crises,” said Plenkovic.”

Still, is this decision as flawless as it seems? MP Zvonimir Troskot has pointed out one of the possible flaws of joining Schengen. According to his words, “Because of the Schengen zone, we sold our entire energy independence. We are entering a zone that is not a guarantee for us because people without documents can still walk around Croatia.” In the same interview, he explains that his concerns are connected to Croatia’s growing dependence on Hungary. As a country, Croatia, with its own gas fields, is a major gateway of oil to Europe, but the projects of developing these fields are in partnership with Hungary. After having entered the Schengen trade zone, this cooperation will grow. In the current political situation of Russia-Hungary relations, this dependence can be used as a geopolitical tool.

Another problem is migration. As mentioned above, due to joining Schengen, Croatia will need to reconsider its laws of migration. According to recent research done by Euractiv, after Croatia joined the Schengen zone, the number of illegal migrants rose significantly. The deputy head of the national police chief, Zoran Ničeno, has pointed out that in January of this year, 1,390 people requested asylum in Croatia, which is 600% more than in January of last year. Still, the number of illegal migrants decreased by 60% compared to December 2022. Police will need to make border controls with non-Schengen countries stricter and constantly monitor illegal and dangerous routes of entering Croatia (through the river Sava) to save lives.

In the context of the current economic crisis and high level of inflation, an increasing number of migrants can lead to reconsideration of migration laws. During the first months after joining Schengen, it became evident that Croatia, which stayed away from the migration crisis for a while, would need to handle the growing amount of people seeking asylum there. Croatia will need to overcome abuses at the border which took place and will have to take legal measures to overcome abuses. According to an investigation, human rights and humanitarian organisations have documented that Croatian authorities have consistently denied access to their territory and asylum to refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants, and have engaged in collective expulsions, including violent pushbacks. There is a new challenge for Croatian lawyers to build a new fair and equal system and for politicians to implement it.

Taking into account that Croatia is the first new entry to the Schengen zone in 11 years, it can provide an example for Romania and Bulgaria on dealing with emerging problems. Romania and Bulgaria also applied to join Schengen but were blackballed by Austria due to security concerns. According to Austria’s interior minister, “Austria had recorded 100,000 illegal border crossings so far this year, including 75,000 people who had not previously been registered in other Schengen countries as they should have been.”

As mentioned above, Croatia will need to solve problems with illegal border crossings, so both countries will have an opportunity to observe this and develop their way to desired joining Schengen. Both countries wish to make another attempt even despite the current result so that the Croatian way can be used as a guideline.

After an examination of all pros and cons, a conclusion can be made that it is too early to assess the outcomes of Croatia’s decision to join the Schengen Zone. Nevertheless, positive effects of Schengen are apparent even to the naked eye. The main question now is about Croatia’s judicial and political systems’ ability to implement the right reforms. Deprived of Romania and Bulgaria’s luxury, Croatia will not have a reliable recent example to follow, but it has the possibility to become an example and improve its role in the geopolitical arena.