By Stanley Pignal in Brussels
Published: December 21 2010
Germany and France on Tuesday blocked the extension of the European Union’s Schengen border-free area to include Romania and Bulgaria, snubbing them and their political allies in the former Eastern bloc.
Romania and Bulgaria had been working towards joining Schengen in spring 2011, a timetable that many thought unrealistic amid doubts in some member states over the wisdom of entrusting either country with the external borders of the EU.
The interior ministers from the bloc’s two biggest hitters definitely buried that ambition in a letter to the European Commission, calling an early 2011 date “premature”.
“We do not believe all conditions for an entry into Schengen by these two countries are being met,” the letter said. “It would not be realistic nor responsible to make light of known shortcomings.”
It goes on to highlight weaknesses in the applicants’ judiciary as well as continuing problems with corruption and organised crime.
As unanimous political agreement among EU countries is necessary to join Schengen, the Franco-German position will force a new timetable to be drawn up, diplomats said.
The move will be particularly disappointing for Hungary, which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1 and which had hoped to repair the fraying ties between “old” European member states such as France and Germany and newcomers to the bloc, mainly in the east.
In another sign of tension, at last week’s summit of European leaders, the French, German and British leaders led a campaign to limit the growth in the EU budget, which would most immediately impact on eastern European countries, the biggest recipients of regional development funds from Brussels.
“The Hungarians had made the Schengen accession a priority, and though they have been realistic on the chances of success, they will feel rebuffed by this,” one national diplomat said.
The Schengen area, named after a town in Luxembourg, has been in force since 1995 and now includes 25 European countries, most of them within the EU. Britain and Ireland are not members; Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are. It allows border-free travel.
People who have followed the debate said the factors listed in the Franco-German letter – on the weakness of the judiciary in particular – are concerns shared beyond those two countries.
But political factors are also thought to have weighed in. France remains worried about potential inflows of Roma gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria if borders were to be fully opened.
Paris was criticised by the European Commission for apparently placing a priority on the dismantling of Romanian camps and for deporting more than 8,000 of them, sometimes with compensation.
The episode soured relations between France and Romania, historical allies within Europe.
Germany is said to be concerned about the effect of the two countries joining Schengen on European migration flows.
Including Romania and Bulgaria in the bloc would open a land bridge for migrants to enter the EU from Turkey, either directly into Bulgaria or through the porous border with Greece.