Wednesday, September 19, 2012

FT: Romania receives Schengen area setback

By James Fontanella-Khan in Brussels

Romania’s hopes of joining the EU’s Schengen passport-free zone this week were thwarted after several member states said its membership would be premature while the east European country remains in political turmoil.

A meeting of EU interior ministers scheduled for Wednesday in Brussels, during which officials were supposed to vote on Romania’s accession to the border-free zone, was postponed after Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium made it clear they were not ready to support Bucharest’s admission.

The decision on the enlargement of the Schengen area, which requires the unanimous consent of all existing EU members, may be delayed further until after Romanian parliamentary elections in November, according to EU diplomats.

The delay is the biggest blow suffered by Bucharest since a bitter power struggle between the president and prime minister provoked international concerns about the democratic stability of one of the EU’s newest members.

“The meeting had to be cancelled to avoid what would have been an embarrassing situation for all parties involved,” said an EU diplomat.

“In March [interior ministers of] all 27 countries had agreed to come up with a decision on Romania’s entry, but it became clear that following the political situation in Bucharest it was difficult for several countries to back their entry.”

A sharp political dispute – in which Victor Ponta, Romania’s centre-left prime minister, curbed the constitutional court’s independence as part of his efforts to sideline president Traian Basescu – has led several EU members states to reconsider their position.

Germany was not opposed to entry of Romania to the Schengen area – but the unexpected deterioration of the rule of law in the country led Angela Merkel, the chancellor, to say this year that it was “unacceptable when fundamental principles of the rule of law are violated in a European Union country”.

A Brussels-based diplomat said: “Berlin has realised that unless we send Bucharest a clear sign they will not get serious about addressing the concerns raised by the EU.”

The decision to postpone a vote about Romania has affected Bulgaria, which was also expecting a final verdict on the matter on Wednesday. Both countries joined the EU in 2007 hoping for a rapid accession to Schengen, which abolished internal borders across most of the bloc in 1995.


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