The 8th and 9th of December are decisive for Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia: This is when the interior ministers of EU member states are scheduled to decide on their accession to the Schengen area. A unanimous vote is required. Schengen is a source of pride for Europeans, comprising the largest free-travel zone in the world where more than 400 million citizens freely roam across 26 states (22 EU and four non-EU states). Despite this, the accession process has been slow: Romania and Bulgaria, which completed the necessary checks for accession back in 2011, have now waited over a decade for the green light. Similarly, although to a lesser extent, Croatia completed the evaluation process in 2020, yet is still waiting to reap the benefits of joining.
The European Commission has reiterated the fact that these three nations are ready to join the zone after having ‘strongly proven’ that they meet the criteria – ‘It’s high time to say welcome’, said Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs. The efforts put in by these three states arguably demonstrate their commitment to strengthening the zone; for example, in March, Bulgaria and Romania voluntarily invited experts to conduct further checks on their application of Schengen legislation to reinforce their eligibility, while Croatia has been reinforcing its border control logistics since 2016, remedying its shortcomings, and proving it successfully fulfils the Schengen criteria. An enlarged Schengen zone would not only make Europe safer by improving political cooperation on border policing, but also more prosperous and attractive by eliminating bureaucratic procedures and facilitating the flow of people and goods, exporting a positive international vision of Europe as a united actor. In response to the positive advances, the opposition has eased in recent years. Germany, for instance, has now adopted a supportive position towards the accession of these nations, with chancellor Olaf Scholz stating in August that: ‘Schengen is one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, and we should protect and develop it. This means, incidentally, closing gaps that remain.’
Nonetheless, the current European political climate is not one of overwhelming hospitality. Populism, paired with nativism, nationalism, or other far-right mainstay ideology has culminated in the rise to power of political parties demonstrably unsupportive of such European enlargements, such as FdI in Italy, AfD in Germany, and RN in France, with disinformation at the heart of their rhetoric: ‘Over 70% of Europeans regularly encounter fake news’. The success of effective weaponisation of such mis/disinformation on the interpretation that migrants are a threat to health, wealth, and identity has played a crucial role in shifting the position of some European states against expansion.
The Netherlands and Sweden also raise concerns over the suitability of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania. The Dutch parliament adopted a resolution in October which jeopardises their Schengen plans, insisting that Prime Minister Mark Rutte should block their accession due to the prevalence of crime and corruption, a ‘risk to the security of the Netherlands and the entire Schengen Area’. The validity of these declarations can be confirmed by the Corruption Perception Index which ranks the three states among the worst EU members in terms of corruption and transparency. This is also seen in an EU report on the verification of the full application of Schengen legislation by Croatia which confirmed that 59 per cent of Croats deem themselves affected by internal corruption. Furthermore, the political and social instability of both Romania and Bulgaria has complicated their relationship with the Netherlands. For the former, it was a legal disagreement over a $1.6 billion warship delivery deal, while for the latter, it was a 2013 scandal in which Bulgarian nationals took advantage of $120 million worth of Dutch welfare benefits, raising tensions and reinforcing negative perceptions of Romanian and Bulgarian accession. Finally, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also discouraged the accession of Croatia into Schengen, highlighting its 2,600 cases of illegal deportation of asylum seekers and migrants in the first eight months of 2022 alone, cases which have been denied by local authorities. Lydia Gall stressed that admitting Croatia would ‘send the message that serious human rights abuses are no obstacle to Schengen accession’.
The reasons behind the Dutch claims have been discredited by Bulgarian president Rumen Radev, alleging that ‘Bulgaria and Romania are becoming hostages of domestic politics in the Netherlands, where elections are coming up’ (in March 2023). The migration crisis is tormenting the Prime Minister’s coalition, and an imminent Schengen expansion would not be convenient. If this happens to be the case, it is disappointing that internal politics and selfish interests are trumping the expansion of the European free zone, acting as an obstruction to the much-needed continental unity in current times of crisis.
The fact that it has taken so long for Romania and Bulgaria to join Schengen makes the European community appear incoherent and divided, which ironically is precisely what the free-movement zone aims to disprove. Even so, the lack of transparency which plagues these nations is a valid point for current Schengen members to raise doubts over their reliability. The number of police checks on internal borders within the Schengen zone has been increasing since 2015 amid the rising wave of illegal migrants, seen in Austria’s and Czechia’s policing of their southern borders. Slovenia has threatened to maintain its border checks with Croatia even if the latter joins the Schengen zone to avoid becoming a migrant and refugee ‘pocket’ (between Croatia and Austria) given that the number of illegal migrants using the Balkan route to enter the EU rose by 73 per cent in the first ten months of the year, threatening the very essence and principles of Schengen.
In conclusion, the current Schengen accession situation for Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia is murky. Even though the European Commission stresses that these nations have completed all the necessary checks, corruption, violence, and human rights offences remain very real issues in these nations. However, it could be argued that Hungary and Greece face similar problems yet have been part of the Schengen zone for more than 19 years. The Dutch and Swedish votes are likely to be the decisive ones on the 8th and 9th, yet regardless of the decision, Europe must work to improve its Schengen accession protocols, firstly because having candidates wait 11 years for accession even after completing the necessary verifications is not only ridiculous, but also severely undermines the robustness of European institutions, and secondly because the corruption and human rights issues prevalent in these nations are serious offences and intolerable within the European liberal sphere.
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