Brussels Behind the Scenes: Schengen's Allure

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Schengen's Allure

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

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Schengen's Allure

EU members Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania should be granted access to the Schengen passport-free zone, according to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. If Brussels is serious about forming a tight-knit group to oppose Russia, the decision has to be made soon.

Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are the only mainland EU member states not yet in the Schengen zone. Ireland and Cyprus are also not members; the former enjoys an opt-out and the latter’s application has stalled due to the island’s unique political situation.

The 26 Schengen members – which include non-EU Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein – may soon grow in number, after Germany’s chancellor threw the issue back into the spotlight during a speech on the EU’s future.

Olaf Scholz this week outlined Germany’s ideas for big changes to how Brussels goes about its business, touching on tricky political topics like enlargement and scrapping unanimous voting for issues like foreign policy and tax matters.

The speech was seen as a belated reply to a similar sermon given by Emmanuel Macron in 2017, shortly after he was elected as France’s president. ‘The Sorbonne speech’ also included big ideas about what direction the EU should travel in.

"Schengen is one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, and we should protect and develop it. This means, incidentally, closing the remaining gaps," Scholz told an audience at Prague’s Charles University.

"Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria fulfil all the technical requirements for full membership. I will work to see them become full members,” the chancellor added. He may well have picked his moment wisely.


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.


Croatia appears to be a racing certainty to gain access to Schengen first. Buoyed by the recent decision to grant the Adriatic nation Eurozone membership as of 1 January, the Croatian government is hoping to complete its full set of EU perks as early as this year.

Slovenia has in the past been one of the main stumbling blocks for its southern neighbour but good relations between the two former Yugoslav states in recent years suggest that there is enough good faith to secure the necessary unanimous support.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković met with Slovenian counterpart Robert Golob ahead of the Bled Strategic Forum this week, with insiders reporting that there is a good understanding between the two on all sorts of matters.

Issues may crop up over Croatia’s long border with non-EU member Bosnia. Croatia’s membership would also create new Schengen access points along its Serbian and Montenegrin frontiers. But this may end up being a technical rather than political challenge.

Bulgaria and Romania may prove to be a trickier sell for Scholz and other leaders in a mood to join his Schengen mission.

Both countries are still subject to enhanced rule of law checks under the cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM), which for some countries has proven to be a red flag when it comes to discussing Schengen.

The French and Dutch governments in particular have cited Bulgaria’s failure to tackle organised crime, as well as backsliding in Romania in recent years over judicial reforms, as reasons not to give the green light.

However, the world has changed thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many previously unlikely decisions have been made in the interim, which perhaps counts in the two Eastern European countries’ favour.

Europe is still only in the early days of retooling its relations with the rest of the world, rejigging supply lines and figuring out how diplomacy can actually work in this ever-changing international arena that now exists and is here to stay.

It is surely in the EU’s overall interests to integrate its newest and farthest afield members into what Scholz calls one of the bloc’s “greatest achievements”. A more unified union can only be a good thing in this uncertain world of ours.

Bulgaria is slowly sliding back into Russia’s orbit, having ditched the reform-minded government of Kiril Petkov, Sofia is now holding talks once again with Gazprom about gas supply.

Perhaps comparing energy security and passport-free travel is an apples and oranges scenario, but within the larger construct that is the EU and geopolitics, one has an effect on the other.

Nevertheless, Croatia and Romania will be keen not to see their Schengen fortunes linked to those of Bulgaria’s, in the same way that Albania’s EU enlargement bid was chained to and subsequently delayed by North Macedonia’s.

Freedom of movement and passport-free travel are a powerful perk and incentive. Just look at how strong a debate has been prompted by the idea of stripping Russians of access to the EU.

On the other side of Europe, in the UK, cross-Channel train operator Eurostar has said it will cancel its high-speed summer service between London and Disneyland Paris, citing the extra checks that have to be made thanks to Brexit.

The UK, remember, insisted on a Schengen opt-out while it was an EU member and British travellers will have to as of next year provide fingerprints and photographs upon entry to the zone, as part of a new system.

European Council summits on 6 October, in Prague, and 20 October, in Brussels, will be an opportunity for Scholz and his allies to argue the case for Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania to come in from the cold. Keep an eye on it.


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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