Sunday

19th Nov 2017

Bulgaria, Romania tie migrant quotas to Schengen

  • Romania and Bulgaria could become attractive for refugees as transit countries, if admitted to Schengen. It opens up a new route from Greece to mainland Europe for migrants. (Photo: andynash)

Bulgaria and Romania will tie the adoption of mandatory migrant relocation quotas to their admission in the EU border-free Schengen zone, a senior Bulgarian government official has confirmed.

“Bulgaria and Romania share a stance different from [that of] the Visegrad Four”, Bulgarian deputy prime minister Meglena Kuneva told reporters on Wednesday (9 September), referring to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, who are reluctant to take compulsory burden-sharing quotas and insist on tightening EU external border controls instead.

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  • Bulgaria has seen a 470 per cent surge of migration pressure between 2012 and 2014 until beefing up border security and building more than 30 kilometres of razor-wire fence. (Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

The two countries' prime ministers, Boiko Borisov and Victor Ponta, agreed in a recent telephone call to maintain a joint position on the matter at Monday's (14 September) meeting of interior and justice ministers, Kuneva said.

Asked specifically by a reporter if Bulgaria would support mandatory quotas, she replied: "Yes, I think it is in our interest … I don't want the East Europeans to look less humane in this discussion, because there is the [nub] of the problem.”

She noted, however, that accepting an obligatory quota does not prevent her country from negotiating the number of migrants.

Under a previous relocation scheme which the European Commission proposed in May, Bulgaria agreed to take in some 500 refugees from Greece and Italy. The newly-proposed scheme requires it to accept another 1,500.

In Romania, conservative president Klaus Iohannis said his country should receive around 1,700 refugees on a voluntary basis and rejected the Commission's call for a quota of 6,351.

"I don't consider it as a solution to talk about mandatory quotas made in a bureaucratic manner, without consulting member states," he said on Thursday (10 September). "We are speaking about people and not about pieces which can be counted."

Ponta

The socialist PM Victor Ponta does not officially back mandatory quotas, but he indirectly indicated that this will be discussed at the ministers' meeting on Monday.

Ponta voiced sympathy for a common EU approach on the refugee issue, but he said the EU should also show solidarity to nations such as Romania.

"The very countries that now require us to be united in dealing with refugees are countries that have kept postponing Romania's entry into Schengen," he said.

"Schengen is as essential to Europe as the Economic and Monetary Union is," Bulgaria's Kuneva said, adding, "that is why we want Schengen to develop and stay part not only of the free movement, but of the security and the political prestige of Europe."

A possible enlargement of the Schengen zone with Bulgaria and Romania requires a consensus of its member states' interior ministers.

The two Balkan neighbours have been waiting for eight years as the Netherlands has squarely opposed their admission and other countries such as Germany, France and Finland have voiced reservations, all citing the two countries' persisting problems with judiciary and high-level corruption.

Accession to Schengen is seen as a matter of national pride.

In Romania, this has become an "obsession", Cristian Ghinea, a director at the the Romanian Center for European Policies (RCEP), told EUobserver.

Meglena Kuneva, a former EU commissioner now in charge of European affairs in the Bulgarian government, told reporters that all sceptical member states, including the Netherlands, were now ready to drop their opposition in recognition of the recent progress authorities in Bucharest and Sofia have made in reforming their legal systems and stamping out graft.

Scandals

In Romania, the process led to the imprisonment of former Prime Minister, Adrian Nastase, and to a case against Ponta himself.

Kuneva added that Schengen countries had a direct security interest to admit Bulgaria and Romania into the area.

Having access to Bulgaria and Romania's police databases would allow other Schengen countries to capture wanted suspects from the migrant flow at their borders, while now they can only check the authenticity of their documents, Kuneva said.

"There is no condition on the part of Romania to accept additional refugees in return for accession to the Schengen Area," a spokesperson for the Romanian government told EUobserver.

"But it would be fair for Romania (and for Bulgaria too) to receive a final decision [on Schengen] in October."

Making it clear in negotiations that there will be a direct swap of "Schengen for refugees" could, however, be a controversial move.

"There can be no question of directly conditioning" Schengen entry on a refugee quota, Romania's former foreign minister Cristian Diaconescu told EUobserver.

"But it is obvious that allowing Romania and Bulgaria in the Schengen area is a correct and necessary decision to strengthen the EU's eastern border in such a difficult time,” he added.

"The European Commission position is that both countries fulfill the criteria to become members of the Schengen area but this is a decision for the member countries to take," Natasha Bertaud, a Commission spokeswoman said.

Sofia and Bucharest may not get satisfaction, as "there are some downsides," Cristian Ghinea, from the RCEP think-tank, said.

"Romania and Bulgaria could become attractive for refugees as a transit country. It would open up a new route from Greece to mainland Europe."

Difficulties

It will be difficult for the two countries to advocate lifting borders at a time when most countries are trying to secure them.

Bulgaria, the poorest EU state which has an almost 300-kilometer land border with Turkey, stands on one of the main migration routes from the Middle East to Europe.

It has seen a 470 percent surge of migration pressure between 2012 and 2014 until it built more than 30 kilometres of razor-wire fencing.

It is currently hosting more than 13,000 illegal migrants mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Romania, the refugee problem is a national security issue, and the exact quota will be finalised after a meeting of the Supreme Council of National Defence (CSAT), which includes the Prime Minister, President, and head of the Intelligence Services.

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