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03 December 2023

Sofia resigned, Bucharest heated over Schengen


The likely failure of Romania and Bulgaria to join Europe's borderless 25-nation Schengen zone in March has unleashed heated debates in Romania but is being met with calm and resignation in Sofia.

"In Romania, it sometimes looks like Schengen is as important as EU accession in 2007," a diplomat told AFP.
The two most recent EU members have declared Schengen accession a national priority in 2011.

But after the Netherlands had already cast some doubts on such a move, the decision by France and Germany to block their entry in March 2011 felt like a cold shower.

Though the Hungarian EU presidency repeated on Monday that the promise to include Romania and Bulgaria should be kept if they fulfil the technical criteria, diplomats in Brussels told AFP that the two will fail to join in March, with more than a dozen EU governments opposed.

The disapppointment is more palpable in Romania where the Schengen bid has been top news in the past days.
Ordinary Bulgarians on the other hand seem rather apathetic and comments in the press have become rare.

The difference might be explained by the fact that Bulgaria has always mentioned 2011 for accession without setting March as its target date, unlike Romania, analysts say.

Bulgaria also seems to have been more conscious of the political context of the decision and of the growing scepticism in some European countries over enlargement to the East.

When France and Germany revealed their opposition, Bulgarian authorities vowed to "do their utmost" to ease the doubts of their European partners whereas Romanian President Traian Basescu slammed a "discriminatory action".
Romanians are unhappy at what they describe as an "unfair" change of rules.

Paris and Berlin said that a decision on the applications would be made once the two former communist bloc nations make "irreversible progress" in the fight against corruption. A criterion still to be defined.

But Bucharest insists that the former Schengen enlargements were made only on the basis of technical criteria like the implementation of a secure border control system.

"On the one hand, France and Germany are right because we still have huge problems with the judiciary and with corruption. But they should have told us before that there would be new criteria," Valentin, a Bucharest taxi driver hooked to any radio debates on Schengen, said.

"This is the paradox: Romanians feel the stance of the European States on corruption is right but on the other hand they also agree with Basescu's statement on discrimination," Cristian Preda, a MEP and professor of political sciences in Bucharest, told AFP.

Romania and Bulgaria have been closely monitored by Brussels since 2007 regarding progress in reforming their justice system and fighting corruption are concerned.

This mechanism, unique in EU history, has led to significant progress, according to NGOs. But a lot more needs to be done.

Cristian Ghinea, director of a Romanian think tank on European policies (CRPE) thinks Romania, like Bulgaria, should clearly acknowledge that it wants the monitoring on justice to continue as long as necessary, even after Schengen accession.

But he does not plead for linking the two issues.

As a way out of the impasse, Leonard Orban, a former Romanian Eurocommissioner, insists on continuing the technical preparations while intensifying diplomatic contacts.

Analysts are also encouraging Bucharest to speak with one voice.

"All politicians should concentrate more on important subjects rather than on internal political fights so that Europe will get the impression that there is a strong national will to go forward on issues like corruption, improving the justice system, Schengen," a European diplomat told AFP.

For columnist Svetoslav Terziev of the Bulgarian opposition newspaper Sega, "the only way for Bulgaria and Romania to make it into Schengen is to supply evidence that they are really making progress in the fight against high-level corruption."