The news that the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area, planned for March, had been postponed was announced by Hungarian Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, quoted by DPA.
In a matter of minutes, the announcement made big headlines in Romania and Bulgaria, the political leaderships of which had made Schengen accession one of both countries' biggest priorities.
Pintér's announcement could hardly be seen as a big surprise. On 21 December, France and Germany issued a joint letter saying they would block Romania and Bulgaria's Schengen bid. Accession to the Schengen space requires unanimity among EU member states.
"Romania and Bulgaria still need to do a lot of things, therefore they won't be able to meet the spring deadline," Pintér was quoted as saying. He added that if the countries wanted to get another chance to join Schengen in October, they would need to get things done by the end of June.
In Romania, Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi expressed doubt that the quote as reported by DPA, a German press agency, was correct. A Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said an official communiqué would be issued shortly with the official position.
Hours later, Hungarian press agency MTI denied Pintér's statement as quoted by DPA. MTI quotes the country's Foreign Ministry, according to which Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen accession remains a priority of the Hungarian EU Presidency.
However, in setting out that priority, the presidency website uses the wording "to move forward the enlargement of the Schengen area to include Bulgaria and Romania," which could mean making some progress in view of future accession.
Late at night, the Hungarian EU Presidency website published a statement by Pintér in which he is quoted as saying that "there is no such thing as a lost cause".
A diplomat who asked not to be named said the Hungarian minister had apparently made a blunder, as he had hastened to announce a decision which had not yet been officially adopted.
On Monday, Baconschi warned that if it is denied Schengen accession, Romania would unilaterally leave the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) put in place by the European Commission to monitor the country's deficient law-enforcement system (see 'Background'). Also, Baconschi said that Romania would insist that the same mechanism be applied to candidate country Croatia, which hopes to conclude its accession talks under Hungarian EU Presidency.
However, in contrast with this bullish attitude, Romania's President Traian Basescu said on Wednesday that he would assume responsibility for the missed objective of joining Schengen in the spring. He also said his country would not unilaterally leave the CVM and would not affect Croatia's EU accession.
In a TV interview yesterday evening, Basescu said that he was less worried about delays to Schengen accession than about "the abuse of power" by France and Germany, which he labelled a "directorate" that was creating a "dangerous precedent".
Basescu said that Romania had fulfilled all requirements for Schengen accession as confirmed by the technical report, which will be unveiled on 14 January.
"We fulfilled our obligations and now someone tells us 'no'. Very well then, we will stop. The speed of technology modernisation is very high. There is no use in buying technologies which will be outdated by the time the EU directorate would be kind enough to accept us," he said.
The Romanian president had already alluded to the fact that his country could abort a 650-million-euro contract with Franco-German airspace company EADS regarding surveillance of the future EU frontier.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said he would make a huge effort, together with the government, to ensure that Bulgaria was ready to join Schengen in the autumn.
However, the appeasing statement has to be seen against the background of mushrooming scandals.
Rumen Petkov, a former interior minister who had to resign from the former Socialist government after a scandal linking him to mafia circles, said on Monday that he "suspected" that 30 million euros from a total of 130 million allocated by the Commission to help the country's Schengen accession had been "stolen".
To make things worse, another scandal erupted on Wednesday, when the Bulgarian press published transcripts from wiretaps featuring the country's Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Budget Minister Simeon Djankov and customs chief Vanyo Tanov.
According to the tapes, Tanov complains that Tsvetanov wants him to shelter certain firms from customs checks.
The wiretaps were made by the country's secret police and were leaked to Galeria, a tabloid. Borissov revealed some nervousness about the fact that police tapes had been made public, but said it was "normal" that his minister's phones were tapped.
In the meantime, Tsvetanov, Djankov and Tanov made a statement, insisting that they "work well" together. They even staged a media appearance, smiling in front of a truckload of confiscated smuggled cigarettes.
However, Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov recognised yesterday that the scandal "could harm" the country's Schengen bid.