EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Romania's foreign minister Teodor Baconschi has said his country is keen to join the Schengen area at the same time as Bulgaria, but underlined that the rules on joining the visa-free zone do not prevent Romania from entering at an earlier date.
The issue of separate accession dates has become more pertinent following a decision last month by an evaluation group of member states' experts to grant Romania a clean bill of health regarding its compliance with technical accession criteria, while raising concerns over Bulgaria's land borders and its readiness to participate in an intergovernmental database.
"We would like to see the two countries entering at the same date but ... we are still insisting on the principle that you need to evaluate each candidate state on its individual merits," Mr Baconschi told EUobserver in an interview in Brussels on Tuesday (1 February).
"So we don't need to [wait] and it is a risk to renounce that principle because this is the most fair and objective criteria."
EU officials say the accession of the two countries has always been treated as a joint event. They point out that an any attempt by Romania to join the 25-member area before Bulgaria would first require a close assessment of their shared border.
"This takes at least a year," said one official. "While the Danube river makes up the vast majority of this border, placing border guards on bridges are among the actions that would need to be carried out to secure the Schengen area's new external border."
Originally scheduled for March of this year, Romania and Bulgaria's accession hopes also suffered a setback last December following the publication of a letter by the German and French interior ministers, effectively tearing up the original timetable by linking Schengen entry to Sofia and Bucharest's compliance with the 'co-operation and verification mechanism' (CVM).
The European Commission and member states put pressure on the two countries, widely perceived to have been unready for EU membership in 2007, to accept regular monitoring on anti-corruption and judicial reforms efforts under the CVM, rather than delaying membership.
Bucharest is upset at the last-minute link-up however, pointing to the considerable investments it has made in upgrading border security, computer systems and airport infrastructure in order to comply with the old timetable.
"From a legal and political point of view it is incorrect to establish such a connection between the two issues," said Mr Baconschi. "We think CVM is useful, so long as it is used for its original purpose of promoting judicial reform."
While experts say there is a clear logic in linking anti-corruption efforts with accession to a visa-free zone, officials also acknowledge the issue has become caught up with a recent European squabble over Roma migration and upcoming elections in Germany and France.
"There are genuine concerns over corruption in Bulgaria and Romania, but I also get the feeling that the issue has become increasingly political," said one Brussels-based source.
Hungary, current holders of the EU's rotating presidency, has indicated it would like member states to approve the two Schengen applications before the end of this June, but a raft of regional elections in Germany this year, coupled with French presidential elections in May 2012, could result in a much longer delay.
This, warns Mr Baconschi, threatens to fuel Romanian euroscepticism and further aggravate tensions between old and new EU member states.
"We are not in the Desert of Tartars, just to wait without any date for our accession," he said. "It is a matter of responsibility and if we really want to continue the European process we have to play by the rules."