Since its creation in 1985 in a small Luxembourgish town, the Schengen Area has become one of most emblematic and tangible results of European integration: entire generations have grown used to travelling across borders without the need to carry a passport or cross border controls.
While Schengen was initially established in parallel to the European Union, it was eventually incorporated into the bloc’s law and now acts as a central pillar propping up the single market.
The zone now covers 26 nations, including 22 EU countries, and almost 420 million citizens.
But a handful of EU countries have yet to enjoy the benefits of passport-free travel.
This is the case of Bulgaria and Romania, two countries that joined the EU in 2007 and have patiently waited at Schengen’s doorstep.
The two bids were never going to be easy ride but, after more than a decade in the queue, the process has become a source of frustration for Sofia and Bucharest.
Joining Schengen requires, among other things, the application of common rules, proper management of external borders, sharing of security information and efficient police cooperation.
The governments insist that they met the necessary criteria years ago. Last summer, they even joined Schengen’s common visa system as read-only participants, despite the checks on their borders.
The European Commission and the European Parliament are unequivocally on their side: the executive has repeatedly confirmed the candidates have fulfilled all technical conditions while MEPs have criticised their exclusion as discriminatory.
Bulgaria and Romania are so convinced about their readiness that they invited a fact-finding mission of experts to visit their nations and carry an additional evaluation.
But one obstacle remains: politics.
The final green-light has to come from the Council of the European Union, which gathers ministers from the 27 EU countries. The approval of a new Schengen member has to be rubberstamped by unanimity, which means a single “no” can effectively freeze the whole process.
In 2011, the double bid was reportedly opposed by France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium over concerns related to corruption, organised crime and judicial reforms.
In the following years, the question was pushed to the front several times, only to be pushed back. The 2015 migration crisis, which became Schengen’s litmus test, further dampened hopes for admission. But the tide began turning after the COVID-19 crisis.
Closing the gaps that remain
Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron opened the door for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania while unveiling plans to reform the passport-free area, including by setting up a ministerial Schengen Council to speed up collective action in times of crisis.
“We must reform Schengen,” Macron said in February. “There can be no freedom of movement if we do not control our external borders.”
Months later, in August, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz voiced his backing and publicly pledged to work to see Romania and Bulgaria “become full members.”
“Schengen is one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, and we should protect and develop it. This means, incidentally, closing gaps that remain,” Scholz told an audience in Prague.
As with any other topic in EU policy-making, the endorsement from Paris and Berlin was essential to move things forward and influence other reluctant countries to take a stance.
Finland, Sweden and Denmark have equally softened their positions, officials told Euronews, although Sweden has a new right-wing government and Denmark is holding elections next month.
In October, the European Parliament passed a new resolution – the fifth one of its kind since 2011 – piling pressure on politicians to approve the immediate admission of Bulgaria and Romania.
The Parliament “is dismayed that in the 11 years since, the Council has failed to take a decision,” lawmakers wrote in their text, which was not legally-binding.
But mere days later, the Dutch Parliament adopted its own resolution, urging the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to veto the two applications until further investigations are conducted.
Dutch lawmakers argued the prevalence of corruption and organised crime in Bulgaria and Romania posed “a risk to the security of the Netherlands and the entire Schengen Area.”
This adamant opposition appeared to contradict Rutte’s own words, who, weeks prior to the parliamentary vote, had said the Netherlands was not “in principle” against the admission of both countries.
“We say that all countries that meet the conditions must join the Schengen Area,” Rutte said, during a recent visit to Bucharest.
To this day, Bulgaria and Romania remain under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), a process launched in 2007 that evaluates the introduction of reforms on the judicial system, anti-corruption and, in Bulgaria’s case, the fight against corruption and money laundering.
The countries are the lowest-ranking EU member states in the Corruption Perception Index published every year by Transparency International, although their scores are not far from those of Hungary and Greece, two long-standing Schengen members.
Despite their apparent connection, the CVM and the Schengen applications are considered to be separate, distinct avenues.
The decision comes round to politicians.
The fact-finding mission proposed by Sofia and Bucharest took place in the first half of October and its final report is currently being examined by member states. The findings remain confidential.
The Czech Presidency, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council and is tasked with steering debates, has made Schengen enlargement one of its top priorities.
But the clock is ticking: the next – and likely last – chance that Prague will have to put the long-stalled question to a vote will be on 9 December, when justice and home affairs ministers are scheduled to meet.
Only a unanimous endorsement can abolish checks at all internal borders.
“Make no mistake: voting in the [EU Council] has a strong political component,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said after meeting with Mark Rutte.
“That’s not bad, that’s how the Union works.”
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