EU interior ministers are due to decide on whether to admit three Southeast European countries, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, to the Schengen area at their upcoming meeting on December 8.
As hopes of a positive decision fade, Bulgarian business leaders have urged the country’s government to do all it can to secure membership of the area in the few remaining days — while Romania is seeking to decouple from its neighbour in the hope of raising its own chances of admittance.
Currently the expectation is for a single decision to be made on whether to admit Bulgaria and Romania, which both joined the EU in 2007, and a separate decision on Croatia. The decisions have to be supported unanimously in order to be approved.
The European Commission called on the Council of the EU on November 16 to accept Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia to the Schengen area without further delay as the three countries have fulfilled all the criteria already.
All three hope for a boost to their economies from joining the borderless Schengen area, which would facilitate trade with the area and allow free movement of their nationals.
However, concerns remain among exiting members of the bloc, especially as regards Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU and one with persistent concerns about organised crime and corruption. (map)
Vetos already planned
While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said back in August that he backs Schengen membership for the EU’s three newest members, other member states indicated more recently that they are minded to turn them down.
The latest was the Austrian government, which opposes the accession of all three countries to the Schengen area.
"It is an inopportune time to vote on enlargement now if the external border system does not work,” Austria’s Interior Minister Gerhard Karner said, as reported by Austrian Kurier.at on November 18. Karner was referring to the so-called Balkan route via which many illegal migrants enter the EU.
Sweden’s parliament is also expected to block the three countries’ entry into the Schengen area due to objections by two out of four parties in the ruling coalition. The two parties specifically say they have issues with citizens from Bulgaria and Romania living in Sweden and challenging the public order there.
Meanwhile, the government of the Netherlands has sent an evaluation mission to Romania to verify the country’s readiness for accession to the Schengen area, G4Media reported in mid November, quoting the Dutch embassy in Bucharest.
Dutch lawmakers had urged their government to refrain from irreversible steps regarding Romania’s (or Bulgaria’s) Schengen accession until they analyse the functioning of the rule of law and the reduction of corruption and organised crime in both Romania and Bulgaria.
European Commission backs Schengen enlargement
Despite the objections by member states, the European Commission has called for the three countries to be admitted to the Schengen zone.
“For years, these member states have significantly contributed to the well-functioning of the Schengen area, including during the time of the pandemic and more recently when faced with the unprecedented consequences of the war in Ukraine,” the Commission said on November 16.
“While the three countries are already bound in part by the Schengen rules, the internal border controls with these member states have not been lifted and therefore they do not enjoy the full benefits that come with being part of the Schengen area without internal border controls. Becoming fully part of the Schengen area is a requirement for these member states and they should therefore be permitted to do so given that they fulfil the conditions,” it added.
The EC also argued that an enlarged Schengen area without internal border controls will make Europe safer, more prosperous and more attractive.
Commenting on Bulgaria, the Commission said the country has put in place a strong border management with efficient border surveillance and systematic border checks.
“Fight against cross-border crime is prioritised through international police cooperation, including with Europol. The Schengen Information System is well-established. Bulgaria also demonstrated that it has the necessary structures in place to ensure respect for fundamental rights, guaranteeing access to international protection, respecting the principle of non-refoulement,” it said in the statement.
In Romania, the border management is of high quality, including border surveillance and systematic border checks, and international police cooperation.
“Fight against irregular migration and trafficking in human beings are two priorities where Romania is active. The Schengen Information System is well established. Concerning the respect for fundamental rights, Romania has effective structures in place to guarantee access to international protection respecting the principle of non-refoulement,” the EC noted.
The two countries, which joined the EU in 2007, successfully completed the Schengen evaluation process in 2011. The Council of the EU has already recognised the completion of the evaluation process in two separate conclusions, but no decision on the lifting of internal borders has been taken for more than 11 years.
Bulgaria and Romania invited a team of experts to look into the application of the latest developments of the Schengen rules in October. According to the Commission, “This voluntary fact-finding mission … confirmed that Bulgaria and Romania have not only continued implementing the new rules and tools, but that they have also substantially reinforced the overall application of the Schengen architecture in all its dimensions. Moreover, these two countries proved to have a model track record of implementation of the Schengen rules.”
In December 2021, the European Council confirmed that Croatia had fulfilled the conditions to become a member of the Schengen area with the evaluation process taking place from 2016 to 2020.
“Croatia has made considerable efforts to ensure that controls of external borders comply with fundamental rights obligations. In particular, Croatia set up an independent monitoring mechanism in June 2021, which provides for independent human rights monitoring of border-related operations involving migrants and asylum-seekers. The mechanism directly involves Croatian stakeholders and is guided by an independent advisory board. Croatia was the first member state to put in place such a mechanism,” the Council said at the time.
CVM boost for Romania
In a step seen as raising the chances of Romania getting the go-ahead to enter the Schengen area, the European Commission said on November 22 that it finds it appropriate to terminate the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) mechanism, used to monitor Romania's progress on justice and the fight against corruption.
As reported by bne IntelliNews, the timing of the announcement, just days before the December 8 decision, is an important endorsement for Romania.
Instead of using the CVM — a mechanism introduced for Romania and Bulgaria — monitoring of the rule of law in Romania should be taken forward under established parts of the rule of law toolbox applying to all member states, the EC recommended.
Before taking a final decision on Romania under the CVM, the Commission will take due account of the observations of the Council as well as of the European Parliament.
“The Commission is confident that now with the key final steps being in place, the cooperation and monitoring of the justice system and anti-corruption policies in Romania can be taken forward under the Rule of Law Report and other established parts of the rule of law toolbox applying to all member states,” the report reads.
The Romanian authorities welcomed the European Commission’s decision on lifting the CVM.
“We have clear confirmation that Romania has made the necessary reforms to strengthen the rule of law and has entered the irreversible path of the fight against corruption,” President Klaus Iohannis said.
Some of opposition representatives, however, argued that the decision is “lucky” for Romania’s authorities, which are in the process of adopting controversial new justice laws.
Final push from Bulgaria
Bucharest’s invitation to the Netherlands to send a delegation examine its readiness to become part of the border-free area raised Sofia’s concerns it might be de-coupled from Romania, Euractiv reported. It quoted unnamed sources as saying that it seems increasingly likely that in December Croatia and Romania will be admitted to the Schengen area, while Bulgaria will stay out.
The political crisis in Bulgaria, where the parliament has so far been unable to produce a ruling coalition and a government, is worsening the situation for Sofia.
In response, the Confederation of Employers and Industrialists in Bulgaria (KRIB) has urged President Rumen Radev, the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Gulub Donev and political parties in parliament to use all diplomatic channels to secure the country’s accession to Schengen in December, it said in a statement on November 22.
In open letter, sent to all top politicians in the country, KRIB urged the politicians to take “extremely decisive measures in the remaining days and hours” to secure Bulgaria’s membership in the Schengen area.
“Any new delay is detrimental to the Bulgarian business and causes not only huge damages to our industry and the economy but also affects the entire public interest of the Bulgarian citizens,” KRIB said in the open letter published on its website.
It added that Bulgaria has long ago fulfilled all technical measures to be admitted to the Schengen area, but the issue is becoming political.
“As representatives of business we believe that Bulgaria is losing opportunities for the improvement of the investment climate and for attracting new investments with every passing day. The whole business [community] wants to develop without transport formalities and complications and expects to use the economic benefits from the removal of borders,” KRIB wrote.
Croatia meets accession criteria
Croatia’s prospects are also uncertain, even though back in December 2021 the Council confirmed that Croatia had fulfilled the conditions to become a member of the Schengen area with the evaluation process taking place from 2016 to 2020.
Croatia has set the goal of joining the Schengen area in 2022 and the Eurozone at the beginning of 2023.
However, although the country has met all requirements, its accession to the Schengen area is in question due to migration issues. There have been numerous reports of police violence during pushbacks of migrants.
This was raised in the European Parliament, even though its members supported Croatia’s accession to the Schengen area with 534 MEPs voting in favour on November 10, the parliament said in a statement.
The European Parliament said in the statement it urged Croatia to inform the parliament and the council on how it has implemented its action plan to ensure fundamental rights at EU external borders are respected, as well as its plan for managing EU external borders, and particularly the independent mechanism to monitor the actions of police officers.
“Following reports of pushbacks at Croatia’s borders, MEPs want the Commission to assess Croatia’s external border management and fundamental rights aspects (including through on-site visits) as part of the Schengen evaluation programme,” the statement noted.
“Croatia underwent the most comprehensive evaluation for Schengen membership of any EU country so far. It has met 281 recommendations in 8 areas of the Schengen legislation. The Commission and the Council have confirmed the country’s readiness to apply the Schengen rules in full. The European Parliament completely agrees: lifting internal border controls must happen by the end of this year,” rapporteur Paulo Rangel said as quoted in the statement.
Ahead of a decision, Zagreb has been preparing for Schengen accession. Poslovni dnevnik reported back in April of “major changes” expected at the borders, because when it does join Schengen, Croatia's borders with Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro will become the EU's external borders, while there will be no controls at the borders with Slovenia and Hungary.