Behind the Scenes: Bored of borders

Behind the Scenes: Bored of borders


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Bored of borders

Three EU countries are still running a decades-long gauntlet in a bid to finally join the Schengen zone. Yet, despite fulfilling all the criteria and winning support from across the continent, only one is set to get their just rewards anytime soon.

Bulgaria and Romania have been EU countries since 2007 and have sought Schengen perks ever since then, fulfilling the technical criteria needed to become a member for more than ten years.

Croatia joined in 2013 and was also quick to put its borders in order, meaning all three have been given the green light by Brussels officials to go passport-free for internal travel. The Commission reiterated this point earlier this month.

Political forces have made a concerted push in recent weeks to bring the stalled Schengen expansion back into the limelight but despite renewed calls for the EU’s three latest additions to be let in, chances are looking decidedly slim.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

EU applicants commit to Schengen membership when they join the bloc. The UK — before Brexit — had an opt-out and Ireland still wields one. Cyprus has its own unique political hurdles that mean it is not eligible.

Passport-free travel between members is an outrageously beneficial boon for Schengen zoners, with many economists rightfully saying that the EU’s internal market — the largest in the world — only truly works its magic once you’re a part of both clubs.

That is why Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania have for so long coveted a Schengen green light, in much the same way that all three have enthusiastically pursued eurozone membership. Indeed, Croatia will start using the single currency in just over one month.

But all three have to date been rebuffed by the existing members, who have cited a number of concerns over the years — some legitimate, some not so much — that has kept membership at a frustrating arm’s length.

Croatia has slowly but surely put its issues to bed. A long-running dispute with Slovenia over a contested maritime border has faded away, largely thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the conservative governments that led both countries at the same time.

The Adriatic nation’s long border with Bosnia-Herzegovina has stoked worries that increased migration through the Western Balkans route might be triggered but those concerns don’t seem to be substantial enough to derail their bid.

Neither do the many reports of human rights abuses and pushbacks by Croatian border forces over the years. It all means that Croatia is well-placed to complete its ‘Euro hattrick’ in early December when home affairs ministers meet.

Bulgaria and Romania, though, have had less success in arguing their case. Both countries have been subject to increased rule of law monitoring since they joined the bloc and annual reports have often pointed to unresolved corruption and organised crime.

But talk in recent months has suggested that Schengen could be back on the table. The big political groups have made various statements and resolutions backing full membership for all three without further delay. 

Earlier this week too, the European Commission did its utmost to help at least one of the two Schengen-dreamers, announcing that its extra rule of law monitoring of Romania would cease with immediate effect.

It is a big deal for Romania, which will now only be observed in the same way that all the other EU members are by the EU executive’s justice whizz kids. However, Bulgaria will still be under scrutiny.

That is bad news for Bucharest, in the same way that North Macedonia’s spat with Greece and Bulgaria over various issues was bad news for Albania’s EU membership bid.

Bulgaria and Romania’s fortunes, much like Albania and North Macedonia’s, have been institutionally linked since their respective membership journeys began. ‘Decoupling’ either has always been dismissed as an unwise course of action.

It means that it is quite unlikely — but not impossible — that one would be admitted without the other. Croatia does not suffer from this same ‘guilty by association’ stigma.

Gallingly, Romania is going through a rare period of relative political stability, unlike Bulgaria which is still struggling to put together a government amid infighting that threatens to trap the nation in a quagmire for an indefinite period of time.

The good faith that has built towards Croatia could well have been a trigger for a positive decision towards its Eastern European counterparts if the timing had been better.

There’s always the political situation in other countries to consider too. France, which has been a major stumbling block, will probably hold parliamentary elections again next year. The topic could rear its head and Emmanuel Macron will be keen to keep it out of sight.

Austria, which is gradually cozying up to its anti-migration Visegrad Four neighbours again, has indicated that Croatia stands a chance but that the other two absolutely do not. The Dutch, also historic opponents, don’t vote for a while yet so could they be convinced?

Sweden, now under the stewardship of a right-leaning government which will hold the rotating EU Council presidency in January, is voting in December on the issue as well.

Ugly reasoning

Dig beneath all the talk of technical criteria, political will and rule of law benchmarks to explore the real reasoning behind the differing fortunes of these three countries and you can’t help but be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

For Western European governments, Bulgaria and Romania (scary Eastern Europe) are simply the ‘wrong type’ of countries, whereas Croatia (sunny Central/Southern Europe) — where so many French, Austrian and Dutch people go on summer holidays — is palatable enough.

There has always been a sense among the EU’s core OG members that Bulgaria and Romania shouldn’t have been admitted to the club in the first place. Yet with Croatia, there have not been the same misgivings.

It’s a much smaller country, both in terms of population and sheer size, and doesn’t spark the same migration or crime rhetoric that the other two do, despite suffering some of the same issues like press freedom curbs and corruption.

In early December, it is a safe bet to say that Zagreb will be welcomed into the fold, while Sofia and Bucharest are told yet again that extra effort is needed and more milestones need to be reached first.

The most succinct way to sign off this particular column is simply to say: it’s not fair.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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