The EU Council’s vote last December to admit Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania into the Schengen area for free travel should have been a triumphant moment for the bloc.
A show of unity after a year of political and economic difficulties, as well as highlighting the fact that the bloc still has the political capacity to continue integrating the Balkan countries into the European project, notes the information portal euobserver.com.
Although Croatia welcomed the new year by joining the Eurozone and the Schengen area a month after its successful entry bid, its Balkan partners were not so lucky. Citing concerns about incomplete implementation of EU standards on the rule of law, as well as links between criminal groups and political institutions in both countries, the Netherlands and Austria vetoed Bulgaria’s bid, while only Austria vetoed Romania’s.
The veto caused widespread displeasure from both politicians and the public. The Netherlands and Austria were immediately accused of blocking their Balkan partners because of domestic problems – both countries faced growing support from anti-immigrant opposition parties – rather than for sound political reasons.
Bulgarians and Romanians even discussed a boycott of Austrian and Dutch products on social networks. Even some local politicians got involved, suggesting that their citizens boycott Austrian banks as well as the products of the Austrian chemical concern OMV.
Although many EU leaders did what they could to calm the growing discontent, the damage had already been done. Since then, key political figures from the bloc, as well as the governments of Bulgaria and Romania, have been working to ensure that there will not be another embarrassing veto this year.
The immediate argument for the admission of Bulgaria and Romania is clear. After both countries joined the EU in 2007, they have since 2011 fulfilled all the technical requirements for Schengen membership. However, due to the lack of firm political will, mainly due to concerns that both countries have failed to effectively deal with corruption, as well as to bring the rule of law in line with EU standards, the moment of their entry into Schengen didn’t happen.
Since then, however, the countries have consistently worked to implement anti-corruption measures that are in line with EU standards, as well as to take extraordinary measures to ensure the security of their borders, which minimizes the argument that Schengen expansion could pose a risk of increasing illegal migration flows.
This year alone, Bulgaria has undertaken multiple operations with its UK partners that have broken up organized human trafficking groups, and has finally taken more decisive steps to ensure that EU funds are properly allocated and not stolen secretly from corrupt officials.
Romania, on the other hand, has taken action to address widespread bribery within its institutions, particularly with regard to human trafficking across its borders.
Furthermore, leaving the two countries (with a combined population of around 25 million) outside the Schengen area would continue an unnecessarily expensive endeavor. One of the main arguments for Schengen is the reduction of waiting times between member countries and the smoother flow of not only trade, but also the passage of people. Leaving two of the bloc’s members out of this incredible achievement of European integration will only continue the heavy financial burden on both countries’ domestic economies.
If the EU misses another valuable opportunity to integrate its Balkan member states, it will not only be politically reckless, but could also provoke a furious public reaction in Bulgaria and Romania.
Both governments are struggling to counter strong pro-Russian Eurosceptic political parties, Bulgaria’s “Vazrazhdane” (Revival) and “Romania’s Alliance for Romanian Unity”, respectively, for which support has been growing in recent months. Another Schengen veto would be the perfect political gift to be delivered into their hands.
Although continued reform efforts are still needed in some areas in the two Balkan countries, much of this work is currently underway and much progress has already been made. Both countries have long proven themselves to be reliable and stable partners in the European project, and now it is time for the EU to finally reward both for their hard work and their patience.
Continuing to keep Bulgaria and Romania out of Schengen will not encourage further political reforms, but will only serve to antagonize and frustrate two otherwise very pro-European member states.
Unscrupulous states, namely Russia, which is always looking for ways to divide EU member states, could take advantage of the open opportunity to create a rift in the bloc like this. It is up to the EU Council to ensure that Moscow never gets that opportunity.