(Bloomberg) -- Austria may be willing to relax its veto on expanding the European Union’s passport-control-free Schengen zone to Romania and Bulgaria, proposing access for air travel to and from the two countries.

The government in Vienna had been the main impediment to an expansion as Chancellor Karl Nehammer puts immigration at the top of his policy agenda ahead of elections next year. His position has drawn criticism at home and abroad. 

Read more: Romania Says Austria’s Veto on Visa-Free EU Travel Is Unjust

The plan — which would need the approval of all EU member states — foresees continued strict border controls for road traffic, the Austrian Interior Ministry said in an emailed statement. Looser rules for air traffic would be conditional on the two eastern European nations accepting extradited asylum seekers, as well as the EU tripling funds allocated to controlling immigration.

Romania’s Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu welcomed what he called a “breakthrough” as a sign of flexibility from Austria, and mandated his interior minister to complete negotiations on the matter, according to a post on Facebook.

“Austria’s position is a step in the right direction, but Bulgaria won’t accept additional conditions,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov told reporters. 

Interior ministers from the so-called Salzburg Forum of central and eastern European nations will discuss the plan at a meeting next week in Slovenia.

Stalled Negotiations

The EU approved Croatia’s entry into the Schengen area last year, but similar efforts for Romania and Bulgaria have stalled on opposition from Austria and the Netherlands.

Austria says it won’t support the expansion of what it calls a broken border policy, and has called out its eastern neighbors for failing to register tens of thousands of immigrants illegally crossing their borders. 

The political stance comes as surveys show Nehammer’s People’s Party trailing the far-right Freedom Party by about ten percentage points ahead of elections expected in the second half of 2024.

While full Schengen access for Romania and Bulgaria would deepen economic ties with other EU member states, it wouldn’t automatically mean frictionless travel. Since a first major wave of immigration in 2015, and during the coronavirus pandemic, Schengen member states, including Austria and Germany, have regularly installed temporary border controls within the bloc.

Still, it’s a symbolic veto for Austria, which has traditionally sought to act as a bridge between Europe’s east and west. Austria is among the largest foreign investors in Romania and Bulgaria. Some 147,000 Romanian citizens living in Austria account for the second-largest group of foreigners after Germans. 

--With assistance from Irina Vilcu and Slav Okov.

(Adds comment from Bulgarian premier in fifth paragraph.)

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