Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Romania threatens Croatia in Schengen dispute

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Romania is threatening to create problems for Croatia's EU accession bid in a diplomatic counter-attack against delays to its own entry into the EU's border-free Schengen zone.

Romanian foreign minister Teodor Baconschi in an interview with the daily newspaper Adevarul on Monday (3 January) attacked Germany and France for linking Romania's Schengen bid to progress on corruption and organised crime.

Romanian FM Theodor Baconschi (l) during a Council of ministers meeting


"The same rules that were applied to any other enlargement of the Schengen area must be respected," he said, noting that Romania had been promised to get into Schengen when it met purely "technical" requirements.

"Let's have a look at Croatia's situation. We are supporting any EU enlargement to the western Balkans. But we can't accept that this is being done without CVM, as long as CVM is being kept in our case," he added in a thinly-veiled threat to hold Zagreb to ransom over the Schengen issue.

The so-called Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was imposed on Romania and its southern neighbour Bulgaria in an unusual move in 2007 because the European Commission and other EU states wanted to pressure the two countries to keep-up anti-corruption reforms after they entered the Union.

Four years later, the CVM is still in place and Romania is still rated as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.

In a letter sent last month to the European Commission, German and French interior ministers said Romania and Bulgaria must make "irreversible progress" in terms of CVM monitoring before they can enter Schengen.

Schengen enlargement has no legal connection to the CVM. But the proviso is also supported by the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, which believe speedy Schengen entry would remove an incentive for further reform and would help organised crime rings in the two countries to expand into other EU states.

Romania's Mr Baconschi also said that Bucharest could "unilaterally" ditch the CVM, explaining that it should be a two-way street and a co-operation platform rather than a "handicap."

EUobserver understands that this option is not really feasible however, as the monitoring was a jointly agreed commitment of Bulgaria and Romania when they joined the bloc. "It's unwise to give it up if you want something else at the same time," one EU official told this website.

For its part, Croatia has already been held hostage by its neighbour Slovenia, which in recent years delayed its EU accession progress over a maritime border dispute.

Romania's sabre-rattling seems to be directed primarily at Germany - Croatia's main supporter in the EU - rather than the Balkan state itself. But it could, in theory, delay the process.

Croatia is hoping to finish EU accession talks in the coming months. EU governments and the European Parliament then have to approve and ratify its accession treaty, with membership likely to happen in 2013 if everything goes smoothly.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria, the other country targeted by the Franco-German letter, has so far kept a low profile, pledging to do its utmost to fulfil all the Schengen conditions.

On Monday, however, a new scandal was sparked by former interior minister Rumen Petkov - himself under investigation for corruption - when he accused the Bulgarian government of embezzling EU funds intended for Schengen preparations.

Mr Petkov pointed out that a total of €160 million had been granted for Bulgaria's Schengen preparations, of which €30 million were redistributed to the ministry of finance.

"I am inclined to believe it has been stolen," Mr Petkov said. "There has been a huge increase in cigarette, fuel and drug smuggling through the Bulgarian border," the former interior minister stated. He also claimed that 560 people who are not allowed to enter the EU have recently crossed the country's borders anyway.

Mr Petkov's allegations reflect a dire image painted by EU officials in talks with US diplomats in Sofia, as reported in a US cable dating back to 26 June 2009 and published by WikiLeaks.

Under the headline "How to you make them reform when they don't want to?" the US diplomats spoke of EU commission officials' "growing and by now extreme frustration with Sofia's cosmetic fixes to get a 'good report' while failing to undertake real reforms." "The government's defensive arrogance - and lack of political will - is intensifying enlargement fatigue in Brussels," an EU source told the US diplomat.

"According to reliable contacts, Brussels Eurocrats have dubbed enlargement fatigue the 'Bulgarian Break,' further tarnishing Bulgaria's bad image within the EU," the cable added.

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