EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Romania's police trade union has said that recent customs raids hardly scratch the surface of high-level corruption, in a statement set to harm the country's bid to join the Schengen passport-free area.
About 1,200 security officers at 06.00 am local time on Tuesday (8 February) swept down on the homes and checkpoints of border guards working on the Romania-Serbia border, seizing €500,000 of illegal cigarettes and arresting dozens of people.
The operation follows a similar crackdown on the Romania-Ukraine border last week, arresting 70 people for cigarette smuggling.
The latest raid saw Romanian interior minister Traian Igas link border guard trade unions to the problem. "We want to know whether union leaders are with us in fighting ... those involved in crimes," he said in a public statement.
One of the main trade unions, Pro Lex, the same day hit back with a press release of its own however, using a catchy chess metaphor to deride the crackdowns as a superficial image-building effort.
The Pro Lex statement said Bucharest is "killing 'pawns'" (customs officers) while letting "rooks" (high officials in the National Customs Authority), "queens" (politicians who use dirty customs money to fund party activities) and an unnamed "king" get off scott-free.
The statement noted that cigarette smuggling brings in petty cash, but the real problem is a "pyramid scheme" in which officials under-report customs income and siphon off the unreported money into their own pockets. "Romania is not ready for change. The press is not willing to disclose the names of the important chess pieces," it said, noting that a "system of repression" is endangering people's "physical safety" if they speak out against the crooks.
The controversy comes amid Romania's faltering attempt to join Schengen in March, as originally planned.
Laurent Wauquiez, the EU affairs minister of France, which together with Germany has led a campaign to delay Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen entry, on Sunday told Radio France International: "If they are ready in two years their accession will be a fact in two years ... Having in mind the reports that we have received, Bulgaria and Romania will definitely not accede the border-free area in three months, that's for sure."
On top of the cigarettes issue, Mr Wauquiez spoke of "illegal immigration, weapons smuggling, drug smuggling, and child trafficking" as concerns.
Finland's EU affairs minister, Astrid Thors, when asked about the Schengen timetable on Tuesday, said that "sometimes things take time" and mentioned "illegal Roma migrants" as a specific problem.
The sensitivity of the debate was highlighted in a recent letter to EUobserver by a former Romanian customs official in response to this website's previous article about problems on the Romania-Moldova border.
"In a time when France, Germany and Finland say Romania has problems with securing the external border ... such articles appear and inform the EU population about the easy ways to get into EU (via Romania). I am sure this is not a coincidence," the contact said. "I would be happy to hear from you that the articles was not 'ordered'."
Numbers tell story
The Romanian border police's recently-published report (link below) into smuggling activity in 2010 put a series of interesting figures on what happens on Romania's 2,000-km-long future Schengen land border and 20,000-sq-km-maritime area in the Black Sea.
It said border police detected 2,131 foreign citizens involved in illegal migration out of a total 36 million people who crossed the frontier into the EU. The irregular migrants came mostly from Moldova, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Albania, Iran, Lebanon, Somalia, India, Morocco, Nepal, Ukraine, Palestine, Nigeria, Georgia, Tunisia, Egypt, Serbia, Syria, Sri Lanka and Russia.
The main smuggled goods were: coffee, cigarettes, food products, electronic products and home appliances and textiles. Police also seized over 85 tonnes of heroin and 5 tonnes of gold.
They also detected 82 weapons, 13,036 cartridges and 1.398 kg of explosive substances.
Two recent US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks also painted official Romanian arms exporters in a negative light.
The dispatches noted that UK authorities in 2008 blocked a British firm, York Guns, from exporting 130,000 kalashnikovs to Libya via a Ukrainian middle-man due to fears that the guns would end up in Sudan. A Romanian firm was at the same time cleared to sell 100,000 of the guns to Libya, despite the fact that Libya is believed to have only 76,000 people in its armed forces.