Finland and the Netherlands voiced opposition at a meeting of EU interior ministers to the accession to Schengen of the EU's two newest members, which had been scheduled for 2011.
"In addition to committing to rules, one also has to follow them. Existence of extensive corruption jeopardises the following of the rules," Finnish Interior Minister Paivi Rasanen said in a statement.
EU leaders could hold more talks on the issue at a summit in October, but the Dutch Interior Minister Gerd Leers said his country would wait for the next report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (see 'Background'), which monitors the progress of Romania and Bulgaria in improving law enforcement and combating corruption, before any new decisions are taken. An intermediate report is due in February 2012.
On behalf of the Polish EU presidency, Interior Minister Jerzy Miller issued a strongly-worded statement, regretting the positions of the Netherlands and Finland.
"This evokes in me above all rather sad conclusions on mutual trust between EU member states," he stated. "We live in hard times, hard also for the EU. Such moments require that we support each other. Today, some lacked the courage to say that we want to do it together and not separately."
The Polish minister insisted that Bulgaria and Romania had fulfilled all technical requirements to join Schengen, which has been confirmed by the European Commission. The issue of CVM is unrelated, he stressed, but even in this field the two countries according to him had made "remarkable progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime".
"Last but not least, it is important to note that nowadays Bulgaria and Romania are practically guarding EU external borders, despite the fact that they do so without formal obligation," Miller added.
Unsurprisingly, all the major political groups of the European Parliament also regretted the veto by the Netherlands and Finland, some of them lashing at the Hague and Helsinki for falling prey to populism (see 'Positions'). Last June, MEPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of the two countries joining the EU's passport-free zone.
Strong feelings in Sofia and Bucharest
In Romania, the President Traian Basescu said he personally assumes full responsibility for the Schengen setback, EurActiv Romania reported.
Basescu said that the Netherlands and Finland had behaved in a "non-European way", and that his country would never behave in the same manner. He praised Poland for its "very intelligent" mediation, which had avoided a vote and a veto. Indeed, after The Hague and Helsinki made their positions known, the Polish Presidency postponed the decision instead of holding a vote.
Bulgarian interior minister Tzvetan Tzvetanov, who attended the ministerial meeting, said that even France and Germany had been in favour of the compromise solution, whereby the two countries would first have barriers at airports and maritime ports removed, while maintaining land restrictions.
He said that more consultations would be held before the 17-18 October EU summit, and that a decision could be taken by then at an extraordinary ministerial meeting, or in a written procedure.
Bulgaria is holding local and presidential elections on 23 October. The main opposition contender for the presidential elections Ivailo Kalfin warned that Bulgaria would become isolated if it follows the strategy of its foreign minister Nickolay Mladenov. The latter had said if the country's accession to the borderless area were to be rejected, Sofia would veto the Schengen reform recently proposed by France and Italy.
"Let's not badmouth the countries who have a mistrust in Bulgaria, but rather, let's convince them that our country is ready," Kalfin said, quoted by Dnevnik, EurActiv's partner in Bulgaria.