Bulgaria, Romania Schengen bid faces delay

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EU European affairs ministers yesterday (13 September) decided to extend monitoring on Romania and Bulgaria, which was put in place to tackle their poorly functioning judicial systems and inability to curb corruption. France said the majority of countries are opposed to Bucharest and Sofia's accession to Schengen until the monitoring has been lifted.

The General Affairs Council pointed to significant "deficiencies" and "shortcomings" of law enforcement in Bulgaria and Romania, and decided that the mechanism of Cooperation and Verification (see 'Background') would stay in place.

Asked about France's position with regard to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen, State Secretary for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche poured cold water over the EU newcomers' ambitions to join the Union's border free area in early 2011 (EURACTIV 14/06/10).

"It is not only the view of France. I think the implicit link made by all governments is that from the moment when the conditions required by the control mechanism are not fully met, a number of things are not feasible, including [the two countries] controlling the EU's external borders. Nobody opposed this view," Lellouche said.

Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, are still being monitored by the European Commission due to their poorly functioning judicial systems and inability to curb corruption (see 'Background'). However, as the Commission has recognized, there is no direct link or legal requirement that the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) should be lifted before the two countries' accession to Schengen.

Who is the guardian?

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on this, Lellouche abruptly said: "the Commission has the right to say what it wants. But the European Union is composed of states – allow me to remind you – of 27 states who gather and put together pieces of sovereignty in order to be stronger together. But there is no divine right, coming from I don't know what god, to say, from a certain cloud, that things are this way," said Lellouche, taking aim at the European Commission.

"There is a law, which is the Treaty, and we ought to read the Treaty […] I read that the Commission is the guardian of the Treaties, but for me, who has been elected in my country, the guardian of the Treaties is the French citizens that have ratified it, through their representatives, after having rejected the European Constitution," Lellouche said.

Controversial letter

The French high official was under pressure from the Brussels press to comment on a circular letter from the French Interior ministry, referring to the dismantling of Roma camps. The letter, dated 5 August and signed by the director of cabinet for the interior minister, mentions repeatedly that the measures are targeted specifically at the Roma community.

Speaking to the press less than two weeks ago (EURACTIV 01/09/10), Lellouche insisted that his country never made any ethnic distinctions.

Lellouche said he knew nothing about the circular letter until it was published by the French press. But he found nothing for which to reproach its authors and "strictly nothing contradictory" between the letter and the official statements made.

'No' to 'French bashing'

Lellouche lashed out at journalists for attempting to launch a "bad process" against France and complained about "French bashing" based on an internal paper without legal value. Asked if the document was among those submitted by France to the Commission in response to claims of possible breaches of EU law, Lellouche lost his temper.

"Wait. Wait. France is a big country, a sovereign country. We are the founding country of human rights. I have no intention to be treated as a little boy. It is not because of a circular letter that we question the French Republic […] Enough with those questionnaires, with answers to questionnaires. This is not a tribunal and France is not in front of a tribunal," Lellouche quipped.

He said that instead of asking for explanations, the Commission should better step up its own approach with regard to the eleven million estimated Roma in Europe. But he made it plain that France was for the integration of Roma in their countries of origin, and not in those where they would chose to live.

"The Commission can say what it wants. As an elected political representative of my country, I tell you that if they explain to us that France is obliged to welcome tens of thousands of people, or Roma in brackets, in dire need, with the Commission's only duty being to give us some money, I tell you that you are creating a difficult political situation," Lellouche said.

"This is not the treaty France has ratified," he added.

Earlier in the day, a Commission spokesperson declined to say whether the controversial circular letter was among the documents made available by the French authorities. He admitted he had seen it, as the paper was available on the Internet, but he did not comment on its content.

In the meantime, the French press announced that Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux had signed another circular letter replacing the one dated 5 August. In the new version, no mention of the Roma appear.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned France’s actions, saying that the expulsions "only exacerbate the stigmatisation of Roma and the extreme poverty and exclusion in which they live".

"I urge European states, including France, to adopt policies enabling Roma people to promote social cohesion and to overcome their marginalisation," she said, speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In a statement, the European Roma Policy Coalition, a network of NGOs working on human rights issues, described the fresh information in the French Interior Ministry letter as "surprising and deeply concerning," labelling it "discrimination which violates Article 21 of the Fundamental Rights Charter".

"The European Commission should include the latest revelation in its assessment of the compliance of the French measures with EU law […] this is a test for it to demonstrate its commitment to the Charter," a coalition spokesperson added, calling on the French government to rescind the order and halt all expulsions.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament said it was "scandalised" by the news that Roma were being specifically targeted after statements to the contrary from France's immigration minister.

"The arrogance with which the French authorities replied to the Parliamentary resolution is bluntly contradicted by reality. France has deliberately adopted a policy of discrimination," declared Dutch liberal MEP Sophie In’t Veld, vice-president of the Civil Liberties Committee.

Calling for a full inquiry, the Commission "can no longer continue to say that it is taking its time, without any deadline, in analysing the situation," according to the spokesperson, who stressed that the EU's credibility was at stake.

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. These shortcomings carried the risk that Bulgaria and Romania would not be able to correctly apply Community law and Bulgarians would not be able to fully enjoy their rights as EU citizens. 

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism was set up to assist both countries. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards. If used, the process could lead the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds. Also, if applied, such an unprecedented decision could badly hurt the countries' reputations. 

However, since 1 January 2010, three years after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, Brussels has been unable to trigger the clause (EURACTIV 24/03/10).

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