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Border Controls to Remain for Romania and Bulgaria

December 23, 2010

While the EU formally made Montenegro the most recent candidate last week, the continuing integration of the two Southeast European countries already in the EU hit a roadblock on December 21.  Germany and France officially sent a letter to the EU asking for Bulgaria and Romania’s accession into the Schengen area to be delayed.  The Schengen area consists of 22 members of the EU, plus Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland where border controls have been greatly reduced to allow for the easy movement of people.  As a result, passport control-free travel is one of the biggest benefits of belonging to the EU for most citizens, as it can often take hours to cross the border between the two countries and their EU neighbors.

Officially, the French and German reasoning for requesting the delay is that the two Southeast European countries needed to wage larger battles against corruption and organized crime.  Since entry into the Schengen Zone would allow for mobsters to more easily move out of the countries into the rest of Europe, this could be a concern.  In addition, corruption and judicial reform have remained an area of weakness for the two newest members, as they continually rank at the bottom of the EU (although Greece managed to surpass both of in this year’s Transparency International Index).

However, the two countries were already on schedule to join the block in March 2011, so it is rather late in the game to be requesting a delay, especially since experts had said that both countries were on track to join.  While the response from Sofia was that Bulgaria would work to address Franco-German concerns, Bucharest was more confrontational.  The Romanian President Traian Basescu said that “[the letter] was an act of discrimination against Romania” which his country would not tolerate, even if it comes from “EU’s most powerful countries”.

Romanian media is already reporting that while corruption might be a convenient excuse to block the country from the Schengen zone, the real reason was Romanian’s large Roma (Gypsy) population.  France made the headlines in August for expelling many Roma who were illegally living there, and many of these Roma came from Romania, which has the largest Roma population in Europe.  Removing barriers at the border would only have made it easier for Roma (and other Romanians) to travel to Western Europe looking for work.  Given the economic situation in France and Germany, leaders in both countries could have been concerned about the possibility of more Romanian and Bulgarians coming west in search of work.

In January, the EU will issue its final report on Romania and Bulgaria’s readiness to join the Schengen Zone, and if the report finds them ready, it will be interesting to see how France and Germany react.

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