Foreign affairs minister Kristian Vigenin said he expected the decision concerning Bulgaria's bid to be taken in the course of 2014.
Asked by EurActiv to elaborate, Vigenin explained that under the scenario, air borders would be opened in 2015, with land borders opening in 2017, when Bulgaria becomes a full member of the Schengen area.
He said this timeframe should be seen as a realistic “orientation” rather than a plan to which he could fully commit to.
It has been more than three years since the European Commission considered that Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, were technically ready to join Schengen. The former Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borissov said in 2009 that Bulgaria’s objective was to join Schengen in 2011.
However, a number of older EU members, in particular the Netherlands and Germany, still oppose the accession of the two newcomers and have used their veto on a number of occasions.
The Netherlands in particular insists that it would lift its veto after two positive monitoring reports under the European Commission’s so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, or CVM (see background). However, no CVM report on Bulgaria and Romania has so far qualified as “positive”.
Vigenin admitted that the EU monitoring would continue under the next European Commission that will be nominated in the Autumn for a five-year term.
Regarding the CVM, he said it was necessary to have “calm” discussions with the EU executive on the future of this mechanism and the perspective of abandoning it, adding that such talks would probably take place after the new college of commissioners takes over.
The minister said that it was necessary to see not only how Bulgaria complies with the CVM, but whether the mechanism works and whether it was able to attain its goals.
In this context, Vigenin said it was realistic to “give some time” to those discussions. As Bulgaria is expected to take over the rotating presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2018, he said it would be “logical” for Sofia to have entered Schengen by then.
“But don’t get me wrong – I am not for postponing the decisions until 2018. I am saying that until 2018 those issues must be solved,” Vigenin said.
Bulgaria and Romania will be issued CVM reports on Wednesday. Vigenin admitted that he did not expect a “very positive report”, due to “objective reasons”.
In fact, the Bulgarian authorities are more relaxed about this report than they have been in the past, as it will cover for the first time a one-year period in which three governments have succeeded (normally CVM reports cover a 6-month period). Consequently, the political responsibility for the expected negative report is likely to be split among key political players.
The cabinet of Boyko Borissov resigned in February last year following boisterous public protests in Sofia and several other cities over the price of electricity. A caretaker government, led by Marin Raykov took charge until early elections were held on 12 May, installing a minority government led by Plamen Oresharski.
Speaking to EurActiv, Bulgarian diplomats who asked not to be named have complained that CVM reports regularly generate bad press, which according to them harms the investment climate.
“Many EU countries experience shortcomings in their law-enforcement, why should only Bulgaria and Romania be stigmatised,” one diplomat argued.
Sofia is in favour of monitoring the law-enforcement systems in all EU member states. Such ideas already make their way as part of the effort to reform the Schengen system.
For its part, Romania has said it remains ready for Schengen accession, but will not beg for a date, as it is tired of being told “next time”.
“We are ready for Schengen when you are”, Romanian Interior Minister Radu Stroe recently told his EU colleagues, suggesting that his country was falling victim of rising populism in some EU countries.
Romania will assume to rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2019.