The Schengen agreement
No Dutch vegetables please, we're Romanian
Dec 14th 2011
FOOD shopping is more entertaining when Romania's president, Traian Băsescu, is around. "I think it's good we don't buy any Dutch vegetables," said Mr Băsescu on his way out of a Bucharest supermarket last weekend. He said he preferred Turkish and Spanish produce.
What did the poor, unsuspecting Dutch cucumbers and lettuce do to draw the president's ire? It goes back to September this year, when the Netherlands vetoed an proposed deal that would allow Romania (and Bulgaria) into the European Union's visa-free Schengen area on the grounds that the countries were not doing enough to tackle corruption.
Seeking revenge, the Romanian authorities decided to target that most Dutch of exports—the tulip. Several Dutch lorries carrying the flower were stopped at the Romanian border, supposedly on public-health grounds.
The blockade was lifted a few days later when it became obvious that it would take more than a slight dip in tulip exports to get the Dutch to give way. But Mr Băsescu's new remarks suggest that another round of diplomacy-by-boycott may be on its way.
It is unlikely to be any more successful. The Netherlands wants to see reform of Romania's corrupt judiciary; it argues that if the EU were to give ground on Schengen it would lose any leverage it still has. Mark Rutte's liberal-led government is also hamstrung by its reliance for support in parliament on many matters on the anti-immigrant (and increasingly anti-European) party of Geert Wilders in parliament.
Attempts to make the Dutch budge have failed, most recently at a meeting of EU interior ministers yesterday in Brussels. And Mr Băsescu's most recent intervention does not appear to have helped. "This is not about vegetables, it is about corruption," said Gerd Leers, the Dutch immigration minister. "I hope the president respects the internal market, otherwise we may find one more reason why Romania does not belong in Schengen."
The Dutch may be right, but Romanians still feel sidelined. A recent poll showed that 60% think their country deserves to join Schengen and 22% fear further delay will worsen Romania's image. Almost half believe corruption is the main reason for delay; only 12% blame it on politics.
Almost as many—11%—believe Romania's Roma (Gypsy) population is the problem. Last year France suggested delaying Romania's Schengen entry after it sent back hundreds of Roma in a controversial crackdown on irregular migrants. In December it teamed up with Germany to warn against "premature" enlargement of the area until corruption was tackled. Since then, however, both countries have accepted a compromise proposal that would see the opening of, first, air- and sea ports, and then land borders at a later stage.
For now, the only way for Romania to escape this pickle is for judges to start issuing tougher sentences for corruption. Until then, Turkish and Spanish tomato producers will be rubbing their hands.