'Populism' decried as Romania, Bulgaria barred from Schengen
The Polish EU presidency regretted yesterday (22 September) that the Netherlands and Finland had blocked the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU's borderless Schengen area, saying it revealed a crisis of confidence in the Union. The European Parliament lamented that these countries were the victims of "populism".
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.
When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption - and in the case of Bulgaria, the fight against organised crime.
A 'Cooperation and Verification' monitoring mechanism was set up to assist both countries in adapting to EU standards, starting from the date of their accession. In September 2010, European affairs ministers decided to extend Brussels' monitoring of Romania and Bulgaria.
Sofia and Bucharest had set March 2011 as the deadline to join Schengen but their accession was delayed. The two applicants suffered another setback took last June, when EU ministers decided to postpone their decision for 22 September.
In an official statement, the President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek regretted the delay in Romania and Bulgaria Schengen accession. "Bulgarians and Romanians can be proud of their achievements in fulfilling all the technical requirements. On behalf of the European Parliament, I call for fairness and European solidarity. We call on those member states that blocked Romanian and Bulgaria Schengen entry to reconsider their position," Buzek stated.
The leader of the European People's Party in the European parliament Joseph Daul denounced what he called "the populist attitude" of the Dutch and Finnish governments.
"While Romania and Bulgaria meet all the requirements for joining the Schengen area, some states, abusing the rule of unanimity, strengthen further the intergovernmental drift in Europe", Daul stated.
The EPP leader also called on the European Commission "to exercise all its authority to remedy this situation".
The Green/EFA group in the European Parliament strongly criticised the veto by the Netherlands and Finland. Dutch MEP and Home affairs spokesperson Judith Sargentini stated: "It is hard to see this veto by Finland and the Netherlands as anything other than cynical populist grandstanding. Bulgaria and Romania have fulfilled the conditions required for their membership of Schengen, going to great lengths to do so, so there are no legitimate reasons for refusing their entry to the border-free zone".
MEP Claude Moraes, spokesperson for justice and home affairs for the Socialists & Democrats group, said in a press release that "It is disappointing to see that the right to free movement, gained legitimately by the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, has become a subject for political bargaining."
"Freedom of movement is a fundamental right for EU citizens and should be underpinned by the rule of law. A veto on EU citizens' free movement is a veto against the EU," he added.
S&D MEP and rapporteur on Schengen accession Ioan Enciu claimed that "This decision deepens the second-tier member state situation that the two countries are pushed into and unfortunately contributes to the erosion of the European spirit of solidarity."