Friday, June 10, 2011

Romania and Bulgaria face Schengen entry delays

(Reuters) - Romania and Bulgaria face new delays in their aspirations to join the European Union's borderless travel zone after EU governments asked on Thursday for more evidence of their anti-corruption efforts.

EU interior ministers said at a meeting in Luxembourg both newcomers had met technical requirements for having their borders with older members brought down.

But they agreed to wait until at least September before deciding whether to admit Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen zone, named after a village in Luxembourg where a deal to cut border checks in Europe was signed in 1985.

"We hope that in September we can take this (Romania's and Bulgaria's Schengen accession) to another stage," Hungary's interior minister Sandor Pinter, who chaired the discussions, told a news conference.

Reluctance among EU governments to expand the borderless zone comes at a time when hostility towards immigrants in Europe is fanning a debate over the limits of unrestricted travel.

France and Italy have asked in recent months to change the bloc's rules to allow for temporary restoration of internal borders, citing concerns over an influx of illegal immigrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to flee violence in North Africa and the Middle East.

Some EU governments say corruption in Romania and Bulgaria also poses a security risk and want to see a European Commission report on improving their justice systems, due around mid-year, before deciding on admitting them.

"Some member states, for example Germany, have made it very clear that they would not support Schengen expansion if the report is negative," one EU diplomat said.

Romania and Bulgaria have struggled to convince their EU partners that judicial reforms are bearing fruit since they joined the bloc in 2007. Monitoring reports by the EU executive have regularly contained strong criticism of the countries, which had hoped to join Schengen in March 2011.

"It is too early to take a decision now, and it may take some time before we are in a position to do so," Dutch minister for asylum and immigration, Gerd Leers, said in Luxembourg.

"The Schengen system is based on mutual trust. We are asking new countries to effectively guard our collective borders."

The two countries, both on the Black Sea, lie on important routes for human trafficking and trading in illegal drugs and arms. They say they are doing what they can to combat abuse.

"I would be calmer if the Mediterranean border of Schengen was guarded so well as Bulgaria and Romania guard their Black Sea border," said a Bulgarian member of the European Parliament from the ruling centre-right GERB party, Andrei Kovachev.

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