Schengen, not high-speed pipe dreams, will speed up travel between Hungary and Romania

Amid renewed talk of high-speed trains running from Bucharest to Budapest, the fastest way to speed up connections between Hungary and Romania would be the latter’s inclusion in the Schengen zone. Hungary may soon be in a position to help its neighbour. 

Once again a senior Hungarian official visits Romania and there’s talk about the construction of a high-speed railway between the capitals of the two countries.

This time, it was none other than the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who on July 19 met with his recently installed Romanian counterpart Marcel Ciolacu to talk railways—and much else besides. 

While trains were not specifically mentioned in the official communique put out by the Romanian government (the actual wording was, “a major joint infrastructure project that will bring great economic benefit to both countries”) it is highly likely that a high-speed railway was discussed. Previous Hungarian officials to float the idea of a high-speed railway include the country’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, who on a visit to Bucharest in 2017 said that such a project must become a “priority”. 

Since then, journey times between Bucharest and Budapest have if anything increased: trains currently take around 16 hours to complete the 643 kilometre trip. 

Construction on some sections of a high-speed line linking Budapest with the Serbian capital Belgrade is already underway, financed in large part by China through its Belt and Road Initiative. Such financing is unlikely to be acceptable to Romania however, which has in recent years been considerably more China-sceptic than its neighbours.  

With alternative sources of finance currently few and far between (neither government is in a position to meet the cost of a new railway, which would run to several billion euros), fast trains from Bucharest to Budapest will likely remain pipe dreams for the foreseeable future. 


Instead, the fastest way of quickly improving connections between Hungary and Romania at almost zero cost would be the latter’s inclusion in the Schengen border-free travel area. Long queues of cars and—in particular—lorries form daily at Nădlac, the main crossing point between the two countries. 

In December last year, Austria vetoed Romania’s (and Bulgaria’s) membership of Schengen at a meeting of the European Council. The Netherlands also voted “no”, although it claimed to be vetoing only Bulgaria, not Romania.   

Schengen accession needs unanimous backing from all the area’s members—22 EU nations as well as Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. 

The European Commission has long made it clear that both Romania and Bulgaria meet the technical criteria required for membership, making Austria’s veto purely political. “A decision that willingly ignores the fact that the conditions for membership have been met,” said Romania’s then Interior Minister Lucian Bode last year. 

On July 12, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which stated that Austria’s veto had created anti-European sentiment, had caused significant damage to the economy of both Romania and Bulgaria, as well as harming the climate given the high levels of pollution on the borders, where trucks often wait for days. 

Sweden, which held the agenda-setting presidency of the European Council for the first half of 2023, failed to address the issue. Spain, which took over on the presidency for the second half of 2023 on July 1, offers more hope, not least as it is home to large Romanian and Bulgarian diasporas. However, it has yet to state if it will take up Romania and Bulgaria’s cause. 

Belgium, president for the first half of 2024, is not expected to be a champion of Schengen enlargement. Hungary, which given their shared border has long supported Romania’s Schengen accession—despite disputes in other areas—takes over the presidency on July 1, 2024.

In Bucharest this week, Orbán—although on an unofficial, private visit—offered Ciolacu assurances that should Romania still be outside Schengen by the time he takes the presidency, he would do all he can to “put the subject back on the agenda”. 

“Hungary will continue to be an ally when it comes to Schengen,” Ciolacu told Romanians. Sealing the Schengen deal by the end of 2024 would be perfect for a PM with presidential ambitions and his party. Romania holds both parliamentary and presidential elections in November 2024.

Orbán at Băile Tuşnad 

Orbán was passing through Bucharest on his way to Băile Tuşnad (known in Hungarian as Tusnádfürdő), a spa resort located in a region of Romania where much of the population is ethnic Hungarian. 

There, at an annual gathering of organisations representing Romania’s Hungarian community, Orbán has over the past decade made a habit of making often inflammatory speeches.  

It was at Băile Tuşnad that Orbán first spoke of creating an “illiberal” democracy in Hungary, while last year he lashed out against the “mixing” of European and non-European races in a speech that immediately drew outrage from opposition parties and European politicians. 

It remains to be seen what verbal fireworks Orbán’s presence at Băile Tuşnad in 2023 will bring.

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