Bulgaria, Romania try anew to join passport-free zone
Giurgiu (AFP) –
Herve BOSSY, with Vessela SERGUEVA in Sofia
Bulgaria and Romania fear further disappointment when EU ministers meet Thursday to review their elusive decade-plus long bid to join Europe’s passport-free Schengen travel region.
The two poorer European Union countries want to smooth trade with the rest of Europe but face concerns from Austria in particular over migration from third countries.
EU justice ministers meeting in Brussels will debate the bids from Romania and Bulgaria as well as from Croatia, whose request is expected to get a green light.
“Accession to Schengen has been postponed dozens of times. I don’t believe it for a second!,” said driver Alexandru Birnea, whose truck was stuck in a four-kilometres-long queue at the Giurgiu border post, which separates Bulgaria and Romania.
Acceding to the Schengen zone — which enables more than 400 million people to move freely around its 26 member nations — would make life for thousands of truck drivers travelling through Eastern Europe like Birnea much easier.
Four of those nations are outside the EU.
“We would like to avoid wasting as much time in these endless queues,” Birnea laments, adding that it “costs our companies money too”.
– Roadblock Austria –
All three bids by Bucharest, Sofia and Zagreb to join the Schengen club come at a sensitive time for Europe, as illegal migration and the Covid 19 pandemic have prompted the bloc’s countries to reintroduce border controls.
Despite meeting all the technical criteria to accede, both Bulgaria and Romania have faced resistance from some member states as the EU has repeatedly criticized them over judicial reform and the fight against corruption.
Initially opposed to the idea of expanding Schengen to Bulgaria and Romania, Sweden and the Netherlands have reviewed their positions in favour of Bucharest’s bid in recent months.
Austria, on the other hand, has become the staunchest opponent of both bids put forward, denouncing the EU’s faulty protection of its external borders resulting in excessive numbers of migrants passing through both countries as the ultimate dealbreaker.
Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode countered Austria’s claim.
“The migratory flows do not pass through Romania”, but mainly through Serbia, Bode said, pointing to the more than 128,000 migrants on the western Balkan route recorded by the European agency Frontex from January to October.
– ‘Expecting the impossible’ –
While inclined to give Romania the green light, the Netherlands, alongside Austria, remains “worried” about Bulgaria entering the Schengen club.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that he wanted to be assured that no-one could “cross the border with a 50 euro note”, drawing the wrath of the Bulgarian government.
Bulgaria’s Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev was quick to reject the “insulting” and “discriminatory” remarks, stressing “the exceptional efforts made to meet the requirements” of European partners.
“We expect the impossible from the poorest and most corrupt country in the EU: don’t let migrants pass through (the country), but give asylum to every migrant who enters,” the Bulgarian weekly Capital commented.
Romanian political science professor Sergiu Miscoiu sized up what is at stake on Thursday.
A negative vote would “strengthen the Eurosceptics, especially in Bulgaria which has already had four elections in the past two years,” Miscoiu said.
Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis seemed to mirror that stance when he said that failure was “not an option”, warning against “a rise in euroscepticism” in his country if talks fall through once again.
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