Lithuanian Presidency ‘not optimistic’ on Schengen enlargement

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Lithuania, which takes over the EU's rotating Presidency on 1 July, is not optimistic regarding the much-protracted accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen borderless area, the country’s envoy to Brussels said yesterday (18 June). 

Speaking at a Brussels conference highlighting the priorities of the Lithuanian Presidency, the country’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Raimundas Karoblis, said it was “very difficult” to promise anything regarding the difficult dossier of Bulgaria and Romania’s bid to join Schengen.

The European Commission considers that Bulgaria and Romania have been ready for Schengen accession since 2010, but a number of older EU members have blocked their bid, citing various reasons, ranging from poor border controls, corruption, lack of progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (see background) or “benefit tourism” by the countries’ Roma population.

Several EU Presidencies have ranked Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen accession among their priorities, Hungary and Poland being particularly committed to advance the dossier in 2011. The successive Danish, Cypriot and the current Irish presidency have been less active however, with opposition from the Netherlands being particularly strong during that period.

Karoblis said that “maybe it would be good” to put the Schengen accession to the “Open Europe” chapter of his country’s Presidency priorities.

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But he immediately added that his country preferred to list as priorities areas where progress could realistically be made.

“For us, regarding the results, it is very difficult to promise something. It will depend also on what happens on the ground, what is the progress made in Romania and Bulgaria, and on the other hand the positions of member states that still have concerns,” the diplomat said.

Karoblis also said that so-called “social” or “benefit” tourism had made the case more difficult.

Indeed, in the UK, but also in Germany, concerns are growing ahead of the lifting of restrictions on the movement of workers from Bulgaria and Romania, which will be effective from 1 January 2014. In particular, the Roma population from Bulgaria and Romania is seen as a threat for the social funds of Western countries.

>> Read: German economist denounces Roma ‘benefits tourism’

“We will try to look at the possibilities to look for an agreement in December,” the diplomat said, referring to the 5 and 6 December Justice and Home Affairs Council when a decision to allow Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen could be adopted.

But he added that he was not optimistic, having also in mind the experiences of previous presidencies.

“Frankly, so far we do not see major improvements of the atmosphere in this regard. But yes, we need to continue to insist and to try,” the diplomat said, adding that it remained to be seen if the solution would come under the Lithuania Presidency or under “future presidencies”. 

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, problems also remained regarding the fight against organised crime.

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession. The last report on Bulgaria, published in July 2012, focuses on organised crime and the failings of the law-enforcement.

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