No Schengen for the Eastern Balkan Members. The tale of two EU’s?
Bulgaria and Romania have been blocked from joining the Schengen area, the passport-free travel area that encompasses a large part of the EU and neighbouring countries. The decision, taken on Thursday the 8th by the EU Council, was caused by Austria’s vote against the accession of both countries, which blocked the entire process given the need for unanimity. The Netherlands also voted against, however with an aim at blocking Bulgaria, impacting both states given their tied candidacy. The Council voted to accept Croatia to the bloc during the same session, meaning that Croatia will now join both the Schengen area and the Eurozone on the 1st of January 2023.
The decision to block Romania and Bulgaria from Schengen did not come as a surprise. Austria had voiced its opposition to the plan prior to the vote. Nevertheless, both members of European Union institutions and the governments of the two Balkan nations have voiced their concern and opposition to the move by Austria and the Netherlands. Ylva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, spoke after the vote stating that the two states “are fulfilling all the requirements” and that “the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania deserve to be fully part of the Schengen area”, highlighting her disappointment.
Both countries have been left in the waiting room for several years. The EU commission stated that both Romania and Bulgaria have been ready to join the Schengen area since 2011, two years before Croatia joined the EU, and both Germany and France who previously opposed the change to Schengen’s borders, changed their vote. On top of that, the EU Parliament had passed a resolution in October defending Romanian and Bulgarian membership in Schengen, calling the exclusion of the countries “discriminatory”.
A new “influx of asylum-seekers” from the Western Balkans route is how Austria defended their vote. Karl Nehammer, the Chancellor of Austria, added that Austria could not ignore the 75 000 unregistered migrants that arrived in the country in 2022, stating that it was a "security issue”. Although Frontex, the agency in charge of Schengen’s borders, considers Romania to be a part of the Western Balkans route and has registered a steady increase in the number of illegal border crossings in this route since 2018, the Romanian government responded by refusing that it was part of the route and that the Commission had declared it was ready to “manage its external borders”. The Netherlands voiced concerns over corruption and organised crime to explain its vote against Bulgaria’s accession, to which the Bulgarian government responded that these concerns were not a part of the criteria to join the bloc.
What are the consequences for the two candidates?
Both countries have been facing issues regarding inflation and the energy crisis, putting pressure on their national government as household earnings are increasingly squeezed. However, Bulgaria might find this rejection a bigger problem than its partner up north. Bulgaria has had issues regarding its borders in the past months, including an incident in October that saw a 19-year old migrant getting shot by Bulgarian border forces according to an investigation carried out by several media outlets. The group of migrants that were targeted by the border force stated that the women of the group had been searched in a “sexual” manner, however, Bulgarian authorities claimed that the group were aggressive and published a photo showing damaged material and an injured officer.
Border difficulties and protests in the streets of Sofia regarding rampant inflation rates have added to the wide range of issues the national political landscape has to attempt to resolve. However, Bulgaria has had four elections in less than a year and a half, and currently finds itself with a caretaker government and no coalition in sight. The political crisis the country has faced seems to not be dissipating, with the caretaker government facing intense criticism for a proposal that would bring back paper ballots. Parties opposed to the plan have stated that electoral corruption could increase under the proposed system.
Nevertheless, the decision to keep Bulgaria out of Schengen could have other outcomes apart from adding to the political and social crises in the country. Keeping Bulgaria in the waiting room could put at jeopardy the pro-EU efforts that past governments have shown. Pro-Russian forces in parliament and government have made it tough for the country to fully benefit from EU membership and have made it an outlier in many scenarios. Yet, the previous government stood up to Russian demands for gas payments in Roubles during the war in Ukraine and expelled 70 Russian diplomats from its territory. Cooperation with EU member states was also seen when Bulgaria lifted its veto on EU accession talks with North Macedonia that had been blocked for several years due to historic disputes.
During this wave of pro-EU actions, the latest Eurobarometer measured a 6% increase in the number of Bulgarian’s stating that more decisions should be taken at the EU level, showing a renewed sign of confidence in the bloc’s institutions. However, keeping Bulgaria out of key EU projects such as the Schengen area has been argued to risk creating a division within the European Union, damaging unity and hurting its reputation in the second class members.
What does the EU take away from this decision?
The council’s vote has added yet more urgency on the issue of the veto in the EU council. For matters related to foreign policy, taxation and others, all EU member state governments must vote in favour in the EU council for it to be adopted. This need for unanimity has slowed down the EU’s response to major events such as the war in Ukraine, where in the last months, Hungary blocked or stalled multiple support packages for Ukraine. Hungary has used this veto to leverage the EU Commission to not withdraw funding to the country in response to rule-of-law issues in the eastern European member state. In response to Hungary’s latest action of blocking a support package to Ukraine worth €18 billion, European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis stated the EU “cannot allow one member state to delay and derail this EU financial support”.
Removing the need for unanimity in the Council has gained traction among EU members. German chancellor Olaf Scholz noted that the EU “simply can no longer afford national vetoes” and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also voiced support for the change. Yet, change seems to come slow. Czech European Affairs Minister Mikuláš Bek, who is in charge of the Czech presidency of the council has made his pessimism towards the speed at which reform is coming along clear.