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.
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.