Monday

21st Jan 2019

Romania wants EU signal on Schengen membership

  • Bucharest. Romania has met the criteria for Schengen membership since 2011 - but political factors, including concerns about the country's judiciary, have postponed any decision (Photo: Nico Trinkhaus)

Romania is expecting a clear signal from the EU in the year to come over its accession to the Schengen area, before it takes the rotating EU presidency on 1 January 2019.

"We simply have to take a decision," EU affairs minister Victor Negrescu told a group of journalists, including EUobserver, in Bucharest. 


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The Romanian government says that it meets the technical criteria for the accession, and that the EU is holding back the decision for political reasons.

Romania joined the EU in 2007, together with Bulgaria, which is also waiting to join the EU's passport-free zone.

The EU Council, which represents member states, said in 2011 that Romania fulfils the conditions - which mainly regards external border checks, police cooperation and data protection.

But Romania's partners have since postponed the decision to open Schengen to Romania and Bulgaria.

Frank discussion - but who with?

Negrescu noted that when Romanians "discuss directly" with other countries the issue, "it seems that no one has any problem."

"Everyone tells us that we should discuss with another country [about the problems], and we don't know with whom to discuss," he said. "We don't know why we should not be there."

The EU minister said that Romania expected, "hopefully next year", to have a "very frank discussion" with other member states, and that "maybe a vote should happen."

"It would be an excellent occasion to put the issue on the table of the EU," he insisted.

He noted that Bulgaria will hold the presidency of the EU Council from 1 January 2018, and that both Romania and Bulgaria rule out any decisions under their presidency, when they have to be "impartial mediators" between member states.

"There are six months between the [two] presidencies," he pointed out, referring to the Austrian EU presidency in the second half of next year.

"It could be a moment when a decision should be taken," he said, adding that Romania and Bulgaria should "go in together."

In October, Romania and Bulgaria were added to the Schengen Information System - the database of non-EU visas applicants - although with no right to add, delete or modify information.

'More work to be done'

Negrescu said that Romania could join Schengen in a two-step process, with controls removed first in airports, and later at land and sea borders.

But internal developments in Romania could delay the decision further.

In November, the Commission published its latest report on the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism(CVM), a procedure that was put in place when Romania joined the EU in order to monitor its reforms of the judicial system and administration, as well as the fight against corruption.

Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans noted that Romania has made some progress but warned that there was "still more work to be done".

The Schengen accession process and the CVM are not formally linked, but several member states have said in that past that progress under the CVM would be part of the decision to grant Schengen membership to Romania and Bulgaria.

"The overall reform momentum in the course of 2017 has stalled," the EU executive noted when it published the CVM report.

It said that there was "a risk of re-opening issues which the January 2017 report had considered as closed" and that "challenges to judicial independence are a serious source of concern."

The EU executive referred in particular to an emergency ordinance that was adopted by the government in January, which decriminalised some offences such as abuse of office.

The ordinance was abolished in February after it led to massive demonstrations in the country and criticism from the commission.

Justice reform

The latest commission's warning came as a new controversial reform of the judiciary is being discussed in Romania and has again triggered demonstrations.

Under the planned reform, magistrates would be held accountable for incorrect rulings and would have to pay liabilities. Critics, including the EU, the US and the country's general prosecutor Augustin Lazar, say that the reform would put magistrates under political control.

Romanian foreign minister Teodor Melescanu assured that the reform was to solve "difficulties" in how justice is implemented and that it was prepared through "an extremely transparent process".

"There are a lot of cases where decisions appeared not to be very well prepared," he argued.

"The judicial system has to be organised in a way that ensures the population's respect and the credibility," he told the group of journalists.

Europe minister Negrescu noted however that the government would like to receive "concrete proposals and concrete arguments, even from the commission" about what should be done to fulfil EU expectations.

In September, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called in his State of the Union speech for Romania and Bulgaria's accession to Schengen.

But while the EU, following the migration crisis, is focused on strengthening the current Schengen area and its external borders, there seems to be little appetite to enlarge it to other member states.

Foreign minister Melescanu insisted however that Romania is using "the latest technology" for security and border management.



He added that Bucharest was also "open to discuss some amelioration in the development and the provisions in the Schengen area."

Trade flows

Under condition of anonymity, an official noted that Romania's accession to Schengen is a "very sensitive issue" for the EU.

He said he believed that the main reason behind EU states' refusal to enlarge the Schengen area was trade flows between eastern and western Europe, with western countries reluctant to help their companies relocating activities in the East, where costs are lower.

He said that as Romania was the fastest growing country in the EU - 5.7 percent this year and 4.4 percent in 2018, according to EU Commission forecasts - there was a "certain reluctance" from other member states to "open up".

"There is no other possible explanation," the official said, pointing out that if Romania was in Schengen, it would take 20 hours to transport goods produced in Romania to Germany, while it currently it takes two or three days, sometimes a week.

In the months leading up to its EU presidency, said Melescanu, Romania will "continue dialogue with other member states to ensure a consensus."

"We are ready, we are prepared," he said.

Romania searching for EU respectability

Ten years after its accession and a year before holding the EU presidency, the fastest-growing EU economy wants to "engage" more with its partners. But concerns over the rule of law continue to give the country a bad image.

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