Comment: Romania outside Schengen is an inconvenience, not a failure

Failure to proceed with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to Schengen Zone has been one of the biggest setbacks of the EU institutions in recent years. Numerous Council presidencies (Hungarian, Polish, Danish, Irish and currently Greek) have set the enlargement of free-movement zone with Romania and Bulgaria as one of their priorities.

The Council and these selected national governments have been supporting the efforts of Romania and Bulgaria and have frequently reassured these national governments as well as Romanian and Bulgarian citizens that they will be able to enjoy the right of free movement fully before the end of their half year Council presidency term. So far all of them have failed; it is currently Greece who is chairing the Council and most probably, it will follow the fate of all the previous presidencies that have failed to secure this promise.

On February 14, European Commission’s President Barroso has addressed the issue of Romania’s pending Schengen status during Traian Basescu’s visit to Brussels. Yet again he has affirmed that Romania has met all the necessary criterion and is ready to join Schengen as soon as possible. Yet again, it is safe to say that nothing will happen.

Since Romania’s accession to the European Union in 2007, the issue of Romania joining the free movement zone has been controversial. Severe measures and requirements were imposed on Romania (as well as Bulgaria) that had to be met in order for these countries to be able join Schengen. Romania and Bulgaria have been under much bigger scrutiny than any other country before, mainly due to Cooperation and Verification report mechanism (CVM) that Romania had to respect.

The CVM reports that Romania and Bulgaria are still obliged to adhere to are a precedent. Never before in the history of past Schengen enlargements have they been ordered. These CVM reports introduced a new feature of post EU accession conditionality, which can also be viewed as an imposition of a double standard on particular member states.

On one hand the introduction of CVM reports was understandable as it is no secret that the Romania’s accession to the EU was sped up and there were a lot of compromises that the EU agreed for, even though it shouldn’t have. It was assumed that postponing the Schengen accession would be a push big enough to secure that Romanian government will do whatever it takes to bring Romania up to the  European standards. The CVM reports were said to be one of the ways of pushing the reformation processes in Romania.

It was a fair approach however it has clearly backfired. Even though the CVM reports have been satisfactory and the Commission, that has a sole right to draw consequences from the CVM reports, has already given a green light for Romania’s accession, the country is still caught in this limbo between having fulfilled all the technical requirements and being a fully-fledged Schengen state.

Unfortunately for those who negotiated Romania’s accession to the EU and to the Schengen Acquis, it was impossible to predict the extent to which the Euroscepticism will rocket in some of EU’s member states, especially in the Netherlands and in Germany. This Euroscepticism, paired together with the exaggerated fears over the backwardness of these two countries had a major impact on the failed Schengen enlargement process.

The rise of Euroscepticism had a direct and impeccable impact on Romania’s Schengen accession; it was the Council of national ministers that has the sole voting right on that issue. For Romania and Bulgaria to join Schengen, an unanimous vote from 28 ministers is necessary. So far, achieving this unanimity has been impossible. Even though the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council have agreed that Romania has met all the necessary standards as imposed by the Schengen Acquis agreement, the Dutch and German ministers are still blocking the accession.

At the current moment, the Schengen issue is an unfortunate example of double standards being imposed at the newer Member States, by the countries that were negatively impacted by the crisis. The skepticism of Member States citizens as well as of some national governments over the European Union had a fatal impact on the status of Romania’s accession to Schengen. For states that are openly advocating for the restricting of the migration policies in the EU, the Schengen enlargement is the last freedom that they can restrict and they will try to postpone Romania’s accession as much as they can.

It is completely unpredictable when Romania and Bulgaria will join Schengen. This decision now lays solely in the hands of member states ministers, which means that besides working on ameliorating the CVM report results, Romania and Bulgaria cannot do much about the Schengen accession. The problem with the current situation is that the legality of the refusal to enter the Schengen Zone cannot be checked; it is a strictly political matter and as long as Council ministers vote on Romania’s and Bulgaria’s Schengen status every 6 months, there is nothing that these two countries can do from the legal point of view.

But how important is it actually for Romania to join Schengen? The most obvious result Schengen accession is the passport-free zone, the remaining technical adjustment that will lead to the completion of the European integration process for these two countries. The participation in the Schengen Zone has also two other major advantages: first and foremost, it promotes trade and integration between different Member States. Second of all, it boosts economy by further encouraging tourism from emerging Asian markets.

Clearly there are benefits of becoming the member of free movement zone; it finalizes the process of European integration as well as is good for the general well-being of the country’s economy. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the benefits that Schengen membership brings to an average citizen are rather minimal and come down to the nuisance of having to go through border control while leaving or entering the country. At this point, the most crucial fact is that Romanians and Bulgarians can finally enjoy  the privilege of being able to work across the EU without working permit. The Schengen exclusion should therefore be treated as mere inconvenience rather than a sign of EU’s defiance.

By Zuzanna Kurek, guest writer