Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Romania says fit to join EU passport-free zone

By Sam Cage

GALATI, Romania, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Romania meets the technical requirements for the European Union's passport-free zone and should not be prevented from joining in March as scheduled, officials said on Monday.

Romania and its southern neighbour Bulgaria hope to join the Schengen area four years after they became the latest members of the EU, but France and Germany oppose their membership for now because of concerns over corruption.

The EU has repeatedly has criticised Romania for falling behind in efforts to root out rampant corruption and said last year politicians lacked will to push ahead with reforms, putting the country in violation of its commitments to the bloc.

Border officials in and around the town of Galati, on Romania's eastern border with Moldova, told Reuters new technology, including infra-red and motion sensors and video surveillance, meant the installations were fit for Schengen.

"From our point of view I can say we are ready to deal with Schengen requirements," said George Olaru, head of the Giurgiulesti border post, where a trickle of cars and trucks cross the Prut river into Romania.

France and Germany argue that Romania and Bulgaria have a poor record in fighting corruption and organised crime, which could pose a threat to Europe's security if they were admitted to Schengen.

In a drive to win Schengen membership, Romanian prosecutors made a series of arrests of border guards for corruption in recent weeks and Prime Minister Emil Boc has sacked the country's customs chief.

Romania and Bulgaria lie on important routes for human trafficking and drug trade across the Balkans from Asia to Europe, and have been criticised by the United Nations for failing to protect victims of abuse.

EU experts have also repeatedly criticised Bucharest and Sofia for failing to make good on commitments to address graft, but both governments say they are doing all they can to reform their judiciaries and catch corrupt officials.

"All our personnel were very closely verified on every occasion, every month, so we could enter Schengen," said Laurentiu Sandu, commander of a border patrol ship on the Danube. "We are a little bit disappointed because it was postponed but the equipment is here." (Editing by Jon Boyle)

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