(Bloomberg) -- As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wreaks destruction on the fringes of the European Union, the bloc is poised to pull its newest member closer into the fold.

Croatia, which joined the EU almost a decade ago, is on the verge of joining the Schengen zone -- the passport-free area stretching from Norway’s Arctic coast to Spain’s Atlantic seaboard and the Greek isles in the Aegean. It’s hoping to secure approval so it can remove its border crossings to the EU when it also joins the euro area on Jan. 1. 

Once granted, Schengen entry will ease passage for more than 10 million Europeans who travel to Croatia’s Adriatic shores for holidays each year in a boost to its economy. For the EU, it means deepening a commitment to a once-tumultuous Balkan region where the war in Ukraine has highlighted the risk of failing to more closely engage with countries that are also targets in a struggle for influence with Russia.

“The war in Ukraine, led by Russia, is calling us Europeans to be more united than before,” Gael Veyssiere, French ambassador to Zagreb, told Bloomberg. “Schengen would be stronger with Croatia inside its ranks, rather than outside.”

The decision carries risks, however. While it’s aimed at strengthening unity in the EU, Croatia will effectively leapfrog two other members — Romania and Bulgaria — that have been jostling to enter Schengen since they joined the bloc in 2007. They’ve been held back due to concerns over corruption and their ability to secure their borders.

There’s also concern among some EU countries that Croatia will struggle to protect its 1,000 km (621 mile) border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that ranks as one of Europe’s poorest and most corrupt nations and lies along a prominent route taken by migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Western Europe. By comparison, Schengen’s current external border between Slovenia and Croatia is 668 km. 

According to Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, EU leaders will probably make a final decision for his country to become the Schengen area’s 27th member sometime in the fall. France will put forward a proposal before its stint holding the EU’s rotating presidency ends on June 30, according to a French official who wished not to be named because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

“We worked very hard to fulfill the criteria,” Plenkovic told lawmakers at the European Parliament on Wednesday. “We should join this deeper integration on Jan. 1.” 

400 Million

Aside from adding Croatia’s 3.9 million people to the more than 400 million who can already travel freely in the Schengen area, it may also send a signal to other western Balkan countries, particularly the remnants of the former Yugoslavia, that the path isn’t closed to deeper integration with the EU. 

Concern has been growing across the region after Ukraine was given EU candidacy status — even as aspirants including North Macedonia and Albania have been blocked from starting membership negotiations. The efforts of candidates Serbia and Montenegro to advance their membership processes have also stalled, giving an opening to Moscow and Beijing, which have plied the region with investment.

“Russia’s strategic goal is to destabilize that part of the Balkans,” Vedrana Pribicevic, senior lecturer at Zagreb School of Economy and Management, said by phone. “The EU has a chance to tie these countries to itself even more strongly and prevent conflicts brewing in the region.” 

There are still outstanding concerns. Some Schengen members, such as the Netherlands, have raised concerns about Croatia’s preparedness to control its borders. Slovenia supports letting Croatia in but has signaled that reforms, including on internal border controls that sporadically reappeared during the pandemic, may need to happen before new entries are accepted.

Joining Schengen — the area is named after the Luxembourg town where it was created in 1985 — will mainly benefit Croatia’s economy. While it will make the country more attractive to investors, it will be a boon for tourists, whose visits make up about a fifth of the economy. Once inside Schengen, people visiting Europe from overseas can cross borders with no stops and Europeans will have less trouble getting to the beach.

“Not having to worry about backups at the border with Slovenia will take a lot of the hassle out of the trip,” said Richard Swartz, a Swede who often spends hours waiting to cross into Croatia from its northern neighbor Slovenia when he drives to the Istrian peninsula every year. 

Almost four-fifths of tourists come to Croatia by car and bus, according to the Zagreb-based tourism institute. And while the pandemic undercut their numbers last year, there were more than 10.6 million foreign arrivals, who spent 9.1 billion euros.

“The benefits of Croatia’s Schengen entry would certainly go beyond tourism,” Goran Saravanja, chief economist at the Croatian chamber of commerce, said last week. “Being part of Schengen would increase investment in border counties, lower transport costs, generally make life easier.”

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