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EU keeps Bulgaria and Romania on hold for Schengen

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Bulgaria and Romania hope to get the green light to join the EU’s visa-free travel area by the end of the year. From the GMF.

At its meeting on December 4-5, the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council will not address the question of Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen visa-free travel area, contrary to expectations strong in their capitals. Both countries meet all the technical requirements, but so far they have been blocked by a few member states because the decision must be unanimous. It is now likely that a further meeting of EU interior ministers will be held at the end of the year or early next year to decide whether to join.

If the EU allows this situation to continue any longer, it will have serious political implications and will also benefit Russia’s regional agenda. On the other hand, the permanent admission of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area would strengthen the resilience and integration of the EU.

Their respective EU accession treaties, which entered into force in 2007, provide that Bulgaria and Romania will join Schengen after meeting certain technical requirements, which they did more than a decade ago, as l ‘said the European Commission. Their membership is therefore not a technical question but a political one. They have encountered political resistance from other member states, notably Austria and the Netherlands, but also from Germany in the past. The reasons given are the lack of adequate improvements in the fight against corruption and organized crime, weak rule of law and migration control.

Joining Schengen is a priority for both countries, regardless of changes in government over the years. For the current pro-European government in Sofia, joining Schengen by the end of the year is a top priority. Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov told the European Parliament in November that a further delay was unacceptable given that Bulgaria had met all requirements. Romania has threat Austria is trying to sue Austria in the European Court of Justice over this issue and is also trying to use Austrian economic interests in the exploration of the Neptun Deep gas reserve in the Black Sea to put pressure on Vienna .

For Austria, migration is the main concern. According to Interior Minister Gerhard Karner, the Schengen system as a whole does not work. The government refers to High number of irregular crossings at the EU’s external borders (more than 230,000 in the first eight months of 2023) to explain why Bulgaria and Romania cannot count on its support. However, only 2% of those affected arrive in Austria and other EU countries via Bulgaria, according to Sofia. Vienna has also not prevented Croatia from joining Schengen in 2022, despite reports of frequent violations of human rights at European and international level by the Croatian authorities. Austrian companies are suffering heavy losses due to the lack of free movement with Bulgaria and Romania, and some are trying to convince the government to lift its veto. However, with the 2024 elections, this could further strengthen the popularity of the far right.

For the Netherlands, corruption is the main problem. The government said it would only support Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen area after an additional fact-finding mission. On November 30, the mission – which included representatives from Austria and the Netherlands – gave a positive assessment of the country’s preparedness. According to the Sofia government, the mission found that increased efforts at the EU’s external borders and inside Bulgaria, as well as increased cooperation with Serbia and Turkey, have helped reduce migration pressure on the Western Balkans route by almost 25% in 2023. In December, the Bulgarian parliament is also expected to adopt the constitutional changes that the Netherlands has insisted on.

The Netherlands could soon announce its support for Sofia if its new parliament meets and a government is formed. On the other hand, the victory of the far-right anti-migrant Freedom Party in recent elections could also strengthen Amsterdam’s long-standing opposition.

According to diplomatic sources, Austria could also change its position by the end of the year.

According to Transparency International, Bulgaria and Romania are the second and third most corrupt EU countries, respectively. However, Bulgaria’s score for 2023 has increased World Justice Project Rule of Law Index. Additionally, this year the European Commission closed the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for Bulgaria and Romaniawhich had been put in place at the time of accession due to their shortcomings in corruption and judicial reform, as further recognition of their progress.

At the same time, there is broad political support at EU level for Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen dossier, with their willingness confirmed by figures such as the European Commissioner for Home Affairs. Ylva Johansson and the German chancellor Olaf Scholz. The European Commission and the European Parliament support the two countries’ accession to Schengen. The president of the commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that they should be admitted “without further delay”.

Joining Schengen would strengthen Bulgaria’s integration into the EU and improve the image of the EU among Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. This would also contribute to the EU’s resilience in the region, particularly given Russia’s current intense disinformation campaigns in the region. Both countries also suffer economic losses from border controls and long queues of waiting trucks, with higher transport costs and greater air pollution. The damage amounts to several billion euros for Romania, according to its Minister of Economy, Stefan-Radu Oprea, said recently. And Bulgarian and Romanian migrants working in Austria suffer from movement restrictions.

Recent years have shown that the Schengen system is not immune to crises. Illegal migration is a concern for a growing number of EU members, and Austria, Czechia and Germany have introduced temporary controls at internal borders. Schengen may need to be reformed before being extended to more countries, but that could take years and keeping Bulgaria and Romania waiting would not improve the chances of more secure borders. On the other hand, even if they get the green light, they will have to redouble their efforts to reduce pressure on the EU’s external borders.

Making Bulgaria and Romania wait to join Schengen will only send the message to their citizens that they are second-class European citizens and that their progress is not recognized, exhausting the patience of Bucharest and Sofia. This will also likely discourage reforms and pro-European positions in this country. Russia and pro-Russian circles, and their destabilizing attempts and discourse, would also benefit. This is particularly true for Bulgaria, where the fragile pro-EU and pro-Ukraine coalition government would be further weakened.

If member states fail to reach an agreement quickly, it will mean their inability to move forward on important decisions when geopolitical unity is required. Given Russian attempts to influence and destabilize Southeast Europe, this would not serve EU security.

Dimitar Keranov is a program assistant in the German Marshall Fund’s Engaging Central Europe program, based in the organization’s Berlin office.

Asya Metodieva is a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.

This article was originally published on the GMF website. Reproduced with permission.


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