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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.

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About the Author

Katharina Obermeier

Katharina considers herself a German-Canadian hybrid. She grew up in Germany and completed her BA in International Relations at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Politics, especially in relation to concepts of nationality, have always fascinated her, and she is particularly interested in international political economy. During her studies, she was an avid participant at Model United Nations conferences, and helped welcome international exchange students to her university. She is currently completing an internship at a Brussels-based trade association and hopes to work in European affairs in the future. In her political writing, Katharina marries social democratic principles with a keen interest in the European Union and its implications for European politics and identity. She writes to counteract simplistic ideas about politics and economics, continuously attempting to expose the nuances and complexities involved in these subjects.

  • Romania Magna

    The Schengen agreement has nothing to do with corruption; it is a technical border agreement. Germany and the rest of western European states had abusively linked corruption with the Schengen admission of Romania and Bulgaria. When these countries applied for Schengen membership and spent 1 billion of euros on French/German equipment for border surveillance, nobody mentioned "corruption". Yet when these countries fulfilled their obligations, Germany and others "discovered" that these countries had a corruption problem and vetoed them. Romania and Bulgaria should NOT tackle corruption for the purpose of entering Schengen agreement as such approach would make legal the abuse imposed on them. Tackling corruption was not a condition for entering the Schengen agreement for other countries and was never imposed on Italy or Greece, countries that have also corruption problems. As a Romania, I much prefer that Romania stays out of Schengen than legalize the abusive "corruption clause" that has been imposed on my country. Romania must get rid of corruption for its own development and not for the Western blackmail.

    • eurojunkie

      Thank you for your comment. I completely agree with you that the behaviour of certain European politicians who point to problems within Bulgaria and Romania as a reason to deny them entry into Schengen is very problematic and disingenuous – as I pointed out in my post, it is ridiculous for EU member state governments to oppose these countries' accession to Schengen when the European Commission and Parliament have already determined that they meet the technical requirements. The problem is, they are entirely within their legal rights to do so – the way the EU is set up, the Council (EU national government representatives) must approve new entries into Schengen. The solution I propose above is therefore meant as a practical way to prevent future "blackmail" of this kind, not as a means of legitimising the tactics the German government (and others) have employed. As a German myself, I want to assure you that not all of us apply this double standard to Romanians and Bulgarians, although sadly those who do are very vocal in our media and politics!

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