EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – France wants to delay a decision on allowing Romania and Bulgaria to join Europe's border-free Schengen zone at least until summer 2011 and is pressing for more results in the fight against corruption and a better surveillance of the border with Moldova.
"We have to be very vigilent" about enlarging the border-free area to Bulgaria and Romania "who hope to join in March," EU affairs minister Pierre Lellouche said Wednesday in the French parliament, as quoted by AFP.
He warned against an "automatic enlargement" and said that the technical evaluations, which so far have all been positive, are not enough. Naming the Netherlands as its other ally, the French minister said his country was pressing "to delay this decision at least until summer 2011," when the European Commission is set to present its annual report on the fight against corruption and organised crime in the two countries.
Mr Lellouche's comments will deal a blow to efforts by Bulgarian and Romanian officials to separate Schengen accession from the commission's continued monitoring of their justice reform and anti-corruption efforts.
When the two countries joined the EU, in 2007, persistent corruption and insufficient reforms of their jutice systems determined the set-up of an unprecedented monitoring mechanism, which so far led to the freezing of some €500 million in Bulgaria due to fraud associated with EU funds.
Mr Lellouche said the latest reports of the commission were "worrying", as they noted too little progress in the two countries.
Adding to the overall situation, the French minister also said he was concerned about the Romanian-Moldovan border "because of the distribution of Romanian passports outside their border" and the separatist conflict in Moldova's eastern region, Transnistria, a "black hole" as he described it, in reference to the organised crime gangs and trafficking in weapons, drugs and people eluding the Moldovan or Ukrainian state authority.
The level of corruption in neighbouring Ukraine is also a matter of concern to France.
These arguments are new, considering that so far, Paris had rather pressed for Romania and Bulgaria to "properly integrate" their Roma communities before joining Schengen, as the French authorities unleashed an unprecedented crack-down on Roma camps, linking them to a rise in criminality.
In a press briefing with foreign journalists in Sofia, Bulgarian interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov on Tuesday vowed to tackle "organised migration of Roma into EU countries."
Meanwhile, his Romanian counterpart, Constantin Igas, briefed a German-speaking audience in Brussels about the efforts undertaken by his government, despite the austerity measures, to boost security at the borders and meet all the standards for Schengen accession.
"After our EU membership in 2007, Schengen accession has become our number one priority," he said, adding that the government paid some €540,000, despite budget cuts, to improve the quality of border checks. EU funds amounting to some €500,000 were also used for the purpose.
Mr Igas admitted that Romania had "one of the longest and most difficult EU borders", over 2,000 km long, but insisted that all Schengen standards will be met by March next year.
As to corruption amongst border guards, he said the phenomenon was decreasing, as attested by the commission's reports.
EU officials familiar with the Schengen enlargement process say that if the remaining technical tests in November and December turn out positive, it will be "very hard" and even "unfair" not to let the two countries in.
A delay of a few months is possible, however, in order to signal that the process is not "automatic" and to put more pressure on the two capitals to clamp down on corruption and organised crime.
The decision has to be taken by unanimity of member states in the EU Council of Ministers, even though not all countries are part of the Schengen area, with Ireland, Great Britain and Cyprus being outside the zone.
Eastern diplomats point to the fact that new member states who joined the Schengen area in 2007 – ranging from the Baltic states to Hungary and Slovenia, "are more prepared" than some of the old member states. Greece for example, recently asked the EU to send some 200 guards to help with surveillance of its land border with Turkey, the point where most irregular migrants cross into the EU.