Published on March 20th, 2013 |
by Katharina Obermeier
Image © Will Bakker 2009
The Ugly Politics of Schengen
This month, the interior ministers of the EU member states decided to postpone their vote on whether or not Bulgaria and Romania, the newest EU members, should be allowed to join the Schengen area. In itself, this is not important news – after all, decisions and votes are postponed in Brussels all the time for a variety of reasons. The circumstances of the vote, however, reveal the deep tensions and disturbing narratives surrounding the attitude of many in the wealthy EU states towards its poorer periphery.
New member states to the EU typically do not immediately gain access to all the Union’s rights and services; this is normally a gradual process which allows the European Commission – and established EU member states – to track the new member’s ability and willingness to take on its new obligations. For example, many of the countries like Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, which joined the EU in 2004, did not join the Schengen area until 2007. This makes sense since Schengen is not synonymous with the EU: besides Bulgaria and Romania, the island states of Cyprus, Ireland and the UK are members of the EU but not of Schengen, while Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are part of the Schengen area but not of the EU. Schengen merely describes the area within which any person can cross national borders without being subjected to border checks, which complements the single market of the EU.
However, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007 and, six years later, are still waiting to be admitted into Schengen and to have the labour restrictions that other EU member states apply to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens seeking to work in these countries lifted. Votes on their accession to Schengen have been postponed multiple times already. In the latest incident, the reason for the delay was a statement by the German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, who threatened to veto the countries’ accession if it came to a vote, citing an EU report on their lack of progress in tackling corruption and judicial reform.
Of course, this is a valid concern and the EU has the right to demand that its member states reach certain standards of transparency and accountability. However, the German minister immediately politicised the issue by linking it to his perception of Bulgarians and Romanians “abusing the freedom of movement” in Europe and wealthier countries’ welfare systems. 2013 is an election year in Germany, and given the widespread negative coverage of Bulgarian and Romanian immigration to Western Europe in German tabloids, the threat of a veto seems like an obvious attempt to garner votes among Germans who fear further immigrants from Eastern Europe. Essentially, the matter comes down to the fact that even though the European Parliament and Commission consider that Bulgaria and Romania have been ready to join Schengen since 2011, various member state governments are holding the accession process hostage for their own domestic political gain.
So how can the situation be resolved? The best approach would be for all EU member state governments to lay down specific, objective and realistic goals on combating corruption and implementing judicial reform which they expect Bulgaria and Romania to attain in order to become members of the Schengen area. They should then commit themselves to vote in favour of these countries’ accession to Schengen as soon as they achieve these goals, as objectively determined by the European Commission. This will depoliticise the issue and focus discussion on the real issues Bulgaria and Romania are facing. Otherwise, EU governments will allow national politics and xenophobia to make second-class citizens out of Bulgarians and Romanians and undermine the ideals and freedoms on which the EU and Schengen were built.