Citing no tangible progress in the fight against organized crime and corruption as reasons for their veto, Finland and the Netherlands shattered the Balkan pair’s hopes of becoming Schengen members by the end of 2011. According to them, Bulgaria and Romania, while having fulfilled the technical requirements, could not yet be trusted with guarding the EU external borders.
“Imagine you have a door with eight of the best locks in the world. But before that door is standing someone who lets everybody in - then you have a problem.” said Dutch Immigration Minister Gerd Leers.
Finnish Interior Minister Paivi Rasanen pointed out that “in addition to committing to rules, one also has to follow them. Existence of extensive corruption jeopardises the following of the rules.”
Victims of ‘populism‘
The Polish presidency sought to convince EU peers to agree on a compromise solution that would allow Romanian and Bulgarian air and sea borders to open by October 31, while a decision on lifting the land borders would be made by July 2012. All countries were in favor of this proposition except for the two opponents.
Polish Interior minister Jerzy Miller insisted that Bulgaria and Romania had fulfilled all technical requirements to join Schengen, which has been confirmed by the European Commission. On behalf of the Polish presidency he issued a strong statement regretting the positions of the Netherlands and Finland and calling for solidarity between countries in these hard times.
But Dutch Interior Minister Gerd Leers said his country wouldn’t reconsider its position until the next report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. An intermediate report is due in February 2012.
War of the tulips
Sofia and Bucharest have reacted strongly to what they perceived ‘an unfair isolation’. Romania blocked a shipment of Dutch flowers and bulbs at its borders, on suspicion of a mysterious bacterium. Officials in Bucharest said the case was “unrelated” to the country’s Schengen bid. Romania’s foreign minister Teodor Baconschi said the Dutch position on Schengen showed that the government was being “taken hostage by the extreme right”.
Bulgaria didn’t keep silent either. Foreign minister Nickolay Mladenov warned that if its bid was to be rejected on Thursday (September the 22th), Sofia would veto the Schengen reform, recently proposed by France and Italy. If “a reasonable solution … that meets the interests of all of Europe and especially the best interests of Bulgarian citizens” is achieved, Sofia will back the ongoing reform efforts, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said on Saturday. “If, however, no such decision is taken, we shall need to carefully consider our entire policy from now on regarding the support we give to the reform of European legislation on Schengen. Because ultimately the rules are written to be complied with,” he stressed.
A long journey
When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007 doubts about their readiness and need of judicial reforms surfaced. Therefore, the EU established a Cooperation and Verification mechanism that would monitor their progress in the fields of organized crime and corruption and help them address their shortcomings. In 2010 the monitoring period was extended with its ninth report being delivered in July 2011.
Bulgaria and Romania were initially scheduled to join the Schengen area in March 2011. But France and Germany urged the European Commission to put their admission on hold, arguing that the EU’s two newest members had failed to show real progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime. In June 2011 the EU home affairs ministers Council again postponed their accession for September.
A matter of fairness
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who arrived in Sofia on October the 13th to participate in a European People’s Party Bureau Group Meeting, told a joint press conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov that Bulgaria has met all the necessary Schengen requirements.
According to Barroso, it was “a matter of justice Bulgaria and Bulgarian citizens to enjoy the freedom of travel and all the benefits of the Schengen memberships”. He added, however, that each government had the right to take its own decisions.
The future is still uncertain...
The protocol of the latest sitting of the European Council stated that Bulgaria and Romania are ready to join Schengen. Although the attention of Brussels is now focused on finding a resolution to the financial crisis and the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen is not on the priority agenda, the European Council agreed that a decision on the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area in March and July next year will be sought by the end of 2011.