Four (and a half) reasons why Schengen would be better off with Bulgaria and Romania

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Strasbourg's "eurotram" connects the French city to Germany, without border controls. [Shutterstock]

The refusal to extend the Schengen area to Bulgaria and Romania is a blatant example of a lack of solidarity, disrespect for commitments and disregard for the EU’s own decision-making process, writes Sergei Stanishev.

Sergei Stanishev is a Bulgarian MEP and president of the Party of European Socialists.

It’s been more than seven years since Bulgaria and Romania fulfilled all legal and technical requirements for joining the Schengen area. This is not just another political fairy tale – it has been certified on several occasions by the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the Parliament and the Commission.

Why do we want it, why now, and why would it make everyone better off?

Free movement is among the most recognisable EU achievements

The abolition of internal border controls has been one of the greatest and most tangible achievements of European integration. Building trust, ensuring safety and removing walls after a long history of wars and bloodshed took many years.

The resulting free movement of people, goods, services and capital that we know today is what most fosters our sense of belonging to a common entity, a common space of shared freedom, peace and prosperity. It is the essence of the EU’s sense of self.

‘United in diversity’ for me means that we can be European and Bulgarian/Romanian/German/Dutch etc. Feeling European should not be a political position or a Brussels-bureaucrat label. It’s rather the notion of togetherness, having a lot in common despite the different ethnic or national backgrounds.

Today, we have TGV, Eurostar, even trams that travel between France and Germany – and going abroad no longer makes you feel like a foreigner. Different, maybe, but not a ‘foreigner’. Millions of Europeans now take this for granted and wouldn’t have it any other way.

However, the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, as well as those travelling to or through these countries, do not enjoy this benefit yet due to political inaction.

Political inaction fuels populist voices

The cost of this political inaction is deep and wide. It reinforces populist voices in a number of member states who use this as an example of double standards, bashing the EU institutions for treating Eastern Europeans as second-class citizens.

This foments a feeling of injustice and erodes the popularity of the EU in our societies, ultimately further undermining public support for common European action in times when unity is most needed. No wonder we see decreasing turnout in European elections, declining support for ‘traditional’ parties, and the rise of anti-EU forces.

It’s about money, too

Free movement is what made the Single Market possible – it brought huge economic benefits by significantly decreasing friction between trade partners and facilitating the integration of cross-border trade. More than 1.7 million people work in another Schengen country, and every day some 3.5 million cross internal Schengen-area ‘borders’.

There are more than 24 million business trips and 57 million cross-border goods movements within the Schengen area each year. A number of studies put the potential cost of reintroducing border controls in the Schengen area at up to €20 billion in one-off costs and between €2 billion and €4 billion in annual operating costs.

Now consider the profits and opportunities lost because the Council has been dragging its feet for 7 years, in times when economic growth is what makes or breaks politics nowadays. The EU has long struggled to bridge gaps between countries and regions and has designed a number of tools to foster cohesion. But keeping these internal border controls only serves the opposite purpose.

Security requires common action, not fragmentation

The series of tragic events on EU soil, as well as the increasingly difficult international security environment, has painfully demonstrated that we all face common security challenges. It is therefore imperative that we keep the right balance between free movement and security. This can only be achieved through a coordinated and robust legal framework where everybody is in, on an equal footing.

What’s more, managing borders is a costly endeavour – we should focus our resources on protecting our common external borders, instead of guarding ourselves against one another.

Bulgaria and Romania, for that matter, have proven themselves to be reliable partners, protecting the EU’s external borders ever since the surge in asylum seekers started in 2013.

What we see today with regard to Bulgaria and Romania is not the brightest example of EU decision-making. Endlessly prolonging the acceptance of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen undermines the process of European integration and cohesion, and further erodes the EU’s credibility in times when basic values and rules are called into question. We now have a unique opportunity to demonstrate consistency, by taking a policy decision which would bring immediate tangible benefits to citizens and economies.

This issue has now grown into a matter of principle, a national cause for the peoples of Bulgaria and Romania, and a test for European integrity and unity. No matter the scenario, the future success and strength of the EU lies in its unity.

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