France blocks Romania, Bulgaria’s Schengen bids

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France produced new arguments yesterday (8 December) to support its position that Romania and Bulgaria are not ready to the join Europe's visa-free Schengen travel zone, citing poor border and immigration controls.

European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez told parliament that France will refuse to get involved in "weakening our borders and the capacity of Europe to manage and control its flow of migrants," news agency AFP reported.

"What France says is very simple – that it is well understood that Romania and Bulgaria do not have a closed door," he said.

Romania currently does not recognise its border with Moldova, allowing migrants to flow across the frontier.

Moldova and Romania signed a border treaty last month, a move which was welcomed by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Unfortunately, days later, Mihai Ghimpu, acting president of Moldova, described the treaty as 'illegal and unconstitutional'.

Ghimpu said he would challenge the treaty in the Constitutional Court, if and when it is ratified by Moldova's parliament. As Moldova is in the process of forming a new government, it is difficult to forecast the future legal status of the signed document.

"We have to be sure of our borders," Wauquiez was quoted as saying, adding that the Romania-Moldova border dispute currently represents an obstacle to Romania and Bulgaria entering the Schengen zone.

But the French minister also alluded to the fact that Sofia and Bucharest were not capable of securing their borders in the wider sense. "If we trust them with our borders, it is justifiable that we could expect all guarantees that the borders are well-guarded with enough customs officers to exercise all the vigilance that we have a right to expect," he said.

"Today that is not the case," Wauquiez went on. "At the moment, the work is not satisfactory," he said, citing problems with corruption.

Greece the real problem?

Accession to the EU border-free area has been one of the highest priorities both in Sofia and Bucharest. In Bulgaria, the country's Prime Minister Boyko Borissov deliberately choose not to criticise Paris for its expulsions of Bulgarian Roma, hoping that in exchange, France would not veto his country's Schengen bid.

However, EU experts told EURACTIV that separate accession for Bulgaria was "out of the question".

For now, Greece is territorially separated from the rest of the Schengen area, and with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, travelers from Greece could reach the rest of the Union without any border controls. This in fact may be the French minister's real concern, an EU diplomat said.

Indeed, Greece's porous borders with Turkey could also become an obstacle for EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania, who have set themselves the objective of joining the Schengen border-free area in 2011.

A crossing favoured by illegal immigrants at Nea Vyssa–Orestiada is only a few kilometres from the Greece-Bulgaria border.

For the time being, Bulgaria's borders are well-guarded and according to the Bulgarian press, no immigration spill-over has been taking place in Bulgaria.

But when Bulgaria and Romania join Schengen, the Greece-Bulgaria border may no longer be guarded and the situation could change, experts warned.

Positions

In response to France's new position on Romania's accession to the Schengen Area, Cristian Ghinea, director of the Romanian Centre for European Policies (CRPE), sent EURACTIV.com the following letter:

"Dear Sir/ Madam,

Regarding France's new position towards Romania's accession to the Schengen Area, we would like to bring the following facts to your attention:

1. Romania recognises the border with Republic of Moldova as it was inherited from the USSR. The Treaty for Managing the Border (as it is correctly named) recently signed between Romania and the Republic of Moldova does not change the present juridical situation but brings further measures for better management of the common border.

The treaty was the result of a requirement from the Moldovan government, even if it was later criticised by the Moldovan president on procedural grounds. However, President Ghimpu retracted his declarations and the treaty is expected to be ratified.

The infighting in the Republic of Moldova does not involve Romania and does not change the fact that Romania recognised the border. By signing the treaty for managing the border, Romania simply reconfirmed its position. To speak of a 'border dispute' between Romania and the Republic of Moldova, as the French government did according to EURACTIV, is outrageous.

2. The existence of a Treaty between Republic of Moldova and Romania was not a precondition for Schengen accession. The connection between the aforementioned Treaty and Schengen accession was only made as a new pretext for demanding 'new tasks' from Romania.

3. Romania publicly supported Moldova's EU accession ambitions and its actions were always related to the same objective: to bring the Republic of Moldova closer to the EU. One cannot deny that this is a legitimate objective for two countries sharing deep historical links. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Bucharest has subversive plans towards the Republic of Moldova. As such, we consider the hysterical behaviour of the French authorities to be shameful.

4. On Romania's initiative, a group of EU member states was set up to support Moldova's European aspirations - initially called the Friends of Moldova group but currently named the 'Group for the European Action of the Republic of Moldova'. One may be surprised to learn that France is a founding member of this group. However, Paris has radically changed its position in recent months and obstructed discussions to grant the Republic of Moldova a visa liberalisation perspective in the Council, severely undermining the efforts of the pro-EU government coalition in Moldova.

5. Without any legal grounds, France has gone a step further and linked Romania's accession to the Schengen Area to the Republic of Moldova. This offensive attitude comes in a context in which Paris has already linked Romania's accession to the issue of Roma integration, making Bucharest pay for the reckless anti-Roma measures of the French authorities.

6. The British and French media wrote that Romania is giving EU citizenship to millions of Moldovans. This is simply false. This year the authorities granted Romanian citizenship to less than 70,000 Moldovans (which is anyway less than the number of citizenships granted by France to non-EU immigrants).

One cannot simply ignore the fact that we are speaking about families in the Republic of Moldova who lost their rights after the USSR's occupation here. Romania does not automatically grant citizenship to Moldovans. In fact, we could say that this procedure is rather restrictive as the decision is made on strong individual grounds - and only for those who prove that they belong to a family who had Romanian citizenship before 1944.

Our think-tank was and still is critical of the Romanian authorities (including concerning the Schengen accession criteria, as EURACTIV correctly reported), but France and other EU member states should note the difference between real shortcomings and pure speculation."

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.

As a consequence, the two countries were prevented from entering the Schengen area, an agreement to gradually dismantle checks at common borders.

Sofia and Bucharest set March 2011 as the deadline to join Schengen but their accession is likely to be delayed.

Recent troubles with the Roma people in Western European countries, particularly France, have fuelled scepticism about Romania and Bulgaria's Schengen accession because the largest Roma communities currently live in these two countries.

A monitoring mechanism was set up to assist both countries in adapting to EU standards in judicial affairs when they joined the EU. In September, EU European affairs ministers decided to extend Brussels' monitoring of Romania and Bulgaria.

The enlargement of the Schengen area to include Romania and Bulgaria is on top of the agenda of the Hungarian EU presidency, which starts on 1 January 2011. However, the admission date of March 2011 "is likely to be delayed," a Hungarian government official admitted.

Timeline

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