Germany to veto Schengen enlargement
Germany will veto Romania and Bulgaria's bid to join the border-free Schengen area at a meeting of interior ministers in Brussels on Thursday (7 March), due to insufficient progress against corruption.
"If Romania and Bulgaria insist on having a vote, their push will fail because of a German veto. The idea to gradually open up, meaning air and sea borders first, is also off the table," German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told Der Spiegel magazine in an interview published on Monday.
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Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, initially hoped to become members of the passport-free zone in 2011, but they ran into a joint Franco-German veto.
Germany and France later agreed to a phased-in membership, opening up airports and sea ports and keeping the land borders closed until more progress is made in fighting graft and organised crime.
But the Netherlands opposed this idea and the process stalled, as the Schengen enlargement decision is taken by unanimity in the council of home affairs ministers.
Last summer, during a political crisis in Romania which raised serious concerns about democracy and rule of law in the country, Germany changed its mind again, but it is only now that it openly talks about vetoing the bid.
The European Commission has since published a report about the rule of law in Romania and found that corrupt politicians seem to be above the law, as they remain members of government or parliament.
"The last EU report found some progress, but it is not sufficient. Romania and Bulgaria still have to act with more determination against corruption. Someone who would receive a visa against a bribe could - without further controls - travel all the way to Germany," Friedrich explained.
"Schengen enlargement will be accepted by our citizens only when the basic conditions are met. This is not the case for now," he added.
A Conservative Bavarian with strong anti-immigrant views, Friedrich also took the opportunity to campaign against Romanian and Bulgarian exploiters of the German welfare system, echoing similar concerns recently raised in Britain.
"Freedom of movement means that every EU citizen can stay in another country if they work or study there. Everyone who meets these conditions is welcome here. But those who come here just to cash in social benefits and misuse freedom of movement, must be effectively stopped from doing so," he said.
Asked how he plans to do so, Friedrich said he wants the EU commission to make sure EU funds are really used to help people in these countries.
Friedrich, whose Christian-Social Union is standing for re-election in September both at regional and national level, also advocates tougher sanctions against welfare fraud. One of his ideas is to ban people who were once deported from Germany from coming back again.
Back in Bucharest, the German news was met in a typically politicised manner: the centre-right president blamed the government for ignoring EU recommendations, while the Socialist Prime Minister said the previous government is equally responsible for the Schengen failure.
For his part, foreign minister Titus Corlatean first said that the country does not even want to join Schengen anymore: "We lived fine without Schengen so far, we can continue to do so."
But later on, he said the government is still advocating Schengen membership.
Named after a small village in Luxembourg, where the initial border-free deal was signed in 1985 between France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Schengen agreement now covers 26 European states, including non-EU members Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.
Apart from Romania and Bulgaria, three EU states are not Schengen members: Cyprus, Ireland and the UK.