Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, voiced on Wednesday her unconditional support for Bulgaria's bid to join the Schengen Area in anticipation of a high-stakes vote next month.
"We stand fully on your side," Metsola said upon receiving Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov in Strasbourg.
"There is no justifiable reason not to admit Bulgaria as you have now fulfilled all the conditions since, it bears repeating, 11 years," she went on.
"Bulgaria's rightful place is in the Schengen Area."
Bulgaria, together with Romania, have been stranded at Schengen's doorstep since they both became part of the European Union in January 2007. The passport-free area currently covers 27 European nations, 4.3 million km2 and more than 423 million citizens.
The European Commission and the European Parliament have for years said that Bulgaria and Romania are ready to enter Schengen, but the two nations have been left out due to resistance from an increasingly small number of governments.
Expanding the ranks of Schengen requires the unanimity of all member states.
As of today, only Austria and the Netherlands oppose Bulgaria's accession. Austria's opposition, which also extends to Romania, is considered the main roadblock as it is rooted in a broader dissatisfaction with Schengen. Vienna argues the irregular flows of migrants that cross into the EU every year prove Schengen is "not functioning."
Meanwhile, the Netherlands has signalled it might approve Bulgaria's bid if a series of conditions on judicial reform and anti-corruption fight is met.
Sofia and Bucharest have tried to counteract these arguments by engaging in intense diplomacy with Austrian and Dutch officials. But despite a flurry of bilateral meetings, the positions have remained virtually unchanged since a vote in December last year, when Bulgaria and Romania were denied entry – and Croatia was welcomed.
Spain, the country that currently holds the EU Council's rotating presidency, has promised to hold a new vote next month during a meeting of home affairs ministers. The provisional agenda for the 5 December gathering includes an item on Bulgaria's and Romania's applications, but only as a possibility.
"I sincerely hope the Spanish presidency will make every possible effort to reach an agreement between all member states this winter," Metsola said on Wednesday.
Speaking of the "disappointment" and "frustration" caused by last year's refusal, the president urged countries to think of Bulgaria's young generation and how another rejection could influence their perception of European integration.
"A decision is necessary. It is long overdue and this institution stands extremely firm behind that," Metsola said.
Prime Minister Denkov thanked Metsola for the parliament's support and said Bulgaria's accession would benefit the entire bloc, including Austria. "For me today, there is no Plan B. Today we work very hard to get this accession," he said. "The entire focus is on this."
Later, in a speech delivered before the hemicycle, Denkov warned that "any further postponement" would be "unacceptable and demotivating" for his country. In a thinly veiled reference to Austria, the PM said the re-imposition of border controls, which have increased in recent months over a surge in asylum seekers, could not be "an argument for not accepting Bulgaria and Romania" in Schengen.