Bulgaria, Romania denied Schengen entry

EU home affairs ministers are today (9 June) set to postpone enlarging the Schengen border-free area for an indefinite period, despite calls to the contrary from the European Parliament, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the EU's passport-free zone.

France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium are opposed to Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen area, despite the two countries meeting the technical requirements for accession, EURACTIV has learned.

Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen accession is on the agenda of meetings of EU justice and interior ministers being held in Luxembourg today and tomorrow.

But ministers are expected to postpone their decision for an indefinite period, even though the European Parliament voted yesterday (8 June) to back the two countries' Schengen accession by 487 votes in favour, 77 votes against and 29 abstentions.

Inter-institutional conflict

In a number of statements, Paris has made clear that it directly links Romania and Bulgaria's Schengen accession to their progress in fighting corruption and organised crime.

Reportedly, the six Western countries would like to wait until the European Commission has issued a favourable report for Sofia and Bucharest, under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, an unprecedented monitoring mechanism put in place for the two most recent EU newcomers (see 'Background').

The last such report, issued in February, asked the two countries to do "more" to reform their judiciaries and crack down on organised crime and corruption.

Both the Parliament and the Commission take the view that Schengen accession is an issue unrelated to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism and that the political considerations of individual countries should not overrule this legal base.

However, France and Italy managed to obtain an agreement at EU level to change the rules governing the Schengen passport-free area, in a bid to clarify the conditions under which national governments can reinstate border controls.

The arrival of illegal immigrants on the shores of Italy, mainly from North Africa but also from across the Turkish border with Greece, does not favour Schengen enlargement at this time, diplomats admit.  

In addition, diplomats expressed fears that information in the confidential databases of Schengen could become available to the Bulgarian mafia.

Ministers are therefore expected to postpone their decision to a later date. The next report on Bulgaria and Romania’s performance under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism is expected in September, and an EU ministerial meeting is set to review the situation thereafter.

Internal political agendas

According to the German agency DPA, which cites an unnamed EU source, even if the political green-light is given in September, Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen entry was not likely to be completed before "the spring of 2012".

According to diplomats who asked not to be named, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is standing for reelection in May 2012, will not risk making any decisions regarding Schengen which might be exploited by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

According to a recent prominent article in the Financial Times, the two countries' Schengen accession will be delayed "not by months, but by years".

Any such development would pose internal problems both in Romania and Bulgaria, whose governments have identified Schengen accession as their highest political goal. Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who has repeatedly declared that his country will join Schengen before the end of 2011, is already seeing his popularity drop ahead of presidential elections this autumn.

Positions

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Romania hailed the favourable decision by the European Parliament.

"By this vote the European Parliament is sending a clear political message in support of Romania’s quickest joining of the Schengen Area," a statement reads.

"In the current European context today's favourable vote reconfirms that the European Parliament remains deeply attached to the European emblematic projects, and that enhancing cooperation at European level is extremely valuable and allows our citizens to appreciate the full benefits of the European construction," the foreign ministry states further.

Romania also expresses hope that "the positive message" conveyed by the European Parliament would allow for the adoption by the Council, "within the shortest delays, of the decision concerning Romania joining the Schengen Area".

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria hailed the vote in Parliament "an important step” towards the country's membership of Schengen.

"The large majority which supported the report is a confirmation for the high approval given by the members of the European Parliament for the achievements of Bulgaria […] In light of today's decision of the European Parliament, we expect EU Home Affairs Ministers, who are gathering for an important Council meeting tomorrow, to take into consideration the will of the EP and prepare a decision on the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen within the timeframe recommended by the Parliament," the statement ends.

Background

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, EU 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.

Recent troubles with the Roma people in Western European countries, particularly France, have fuelled scepticism about Romania and Bulgaria's Schengen accession.

One of the reasons appears to be the fact that large Roma communities currently live in these two countries. Another fear appears to be related to the possible transit trough Bulgaria of illegal immigrants from third countries, arriving across the Greek border or crossing the Turkish border illegally.

The Hungarian EU Presidency backs the early accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently deplored the "lack of political will" to achieve this objective.

Timeline

Further Reading