The Council of the European Union has agreed that Croatia will now meet all the criteria for joining the borderless Schengen area.
At a meeting on Thursday, December 9, the Council concluded that Croatia had fulfilled the requirements for the application of the Schengen acquis as a whole, a prerequisite for the country to be able to join the Schengen area.
The latter has 26 members, 22 of which are also member states of the European Union. Croatia is one of the last four European Union countries still not part of the Schengen area, along with Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus.
A press release issued by the Council on the matter notes that since Croatia joined the European Union on 1 July 2013, the country has implemented all of the Schengen requirements of the acquis, except for the lifting of internal border controls.
“According to the law on Croatia’s accession to the European Union, these controls can only be lifted after a decision of the Council to this effect, after verification in accordance with the Schengen assessment procedures that Croatia fulfills the conditions,” the Council explains in the same press release.
Croatia announced its willingness to start the Schengen assessment in July 2015, which was then carried out between 2016 and 2020.
On October 22, 2019, the European Union Commission concluded that Croatia had taken the necessary measures to fulfill the conditions for the application of all Schengen rules and criteria. Despite the positive assessment, the Commission noted that Croatia will have to continue working on the implementation of all ongoing measures, with an emphasis on external border management.
At the time, the decision was criticized by then-Prime Minister of Slovenia, Marjan Sarek, who called it political and insisted that Croatia must first implement an arbitration ruling over its border dispute with Slovenia.
The international NGO Human Rights Watch also criticized the assessment, claiming that Croatia should not be allowed to join the Schengen territory due to violent returns of migrants at its borders.
“Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders make the notion that Schengen membership is contingent on respect for modern human rights law is meaningless,” Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Lydia Gall, said at the time.
Civil society organizations and activists in Croatia, the country’s ombudsman’s office, and a variety of international state and non-state actors joined the call, urging the European Union to keep Croatia outside the Schengen area until its authorities stop the illegal and violent response to migrants.
So far, France and the Netherlands have not been supportive of Croatia’s accession to the Schengen area due to “rule of law concerns”. However, the two countries have now agreed with the rest of the member states that Croatia should be allowed to join the Schengen area.