The vetoing of Romania and Bulgaria joining the Schengen zone sent bad signals to the south-eastern EU member states.
December 8th was supposed to be a day of jubilation for Romania and Bulgaria. But it quickly turned into disappointment, frustration and humiliation. During a meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU, the two countries received yet another rejection of their application to join the Schengen security area.
Austria voted against both Romania and Bulgaria, while the Netherlands voted against Bulgaria alone. Both rationalised their vetoes with purported concerns about the ability to protect the Schengen area’s external borders.
The Austrian chancellor, Karl Nehammer, claimed this rebuff was necessary because his country was exceptionally burdened by refugees. Between May and August, 68,000 irregular migrants and asylum-seekers were apprehended on Austrian territory. The majority, about 46,000, were detained by police in Burgenland, the state bordering Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia. Nehammer claimed that this number had since climbed to 100,000 apprehensions, although no such evidence has yet been furnished.
No one denies that Austria needs help with managing its significant number of asylum applications. Yet, there is also no evidence to support the chancellor’s claim that almost 75 per cent of the applicants (and migrants) found on the country’s territory in 2022 had entered the European Union through Romania and Bulgaria. The numbers just don’t match.
Data from the EU border-security agency Frontex, as well as from Romania and Bulgaria, point to much smaller figures. Between January and September, there were a total of 12,740 apprehensions in Bulgaria, while in Romania in 2021 there were 15,390. Even if these figures underestimate the extent of irregular border crossing, it is very unlikely the real statistics are close to those asserted by the Austrian leadership.
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Indeed, recent developments in border security and updates to the border-surveillance system have made it more difficult than ever for migrants and asylum-seekers to enter ‘Fortress Europe’. Not only is it hard to cross the border but attempts to do so increasingly meet structural violence, pushbacks, human-rights abuses and violations of the right to asylum and the non-refoulement principle. And the Romanian and Bulgarian border police are ‘catching up’ with their Hungarian and Croatian colleagues in this regard.
Austria and the Netherlands are aware of these developments, and their vetoes are likely to be motivated more by domestic politics and impending elections, by economic interests and by a desire to shake the EU into acting on irregular migration—rather than by an actual fear for the two countries’ border-protection abilities. Regardless of the reasons, however, the latest veto against Romania and Bulgaria joining Schengen reinforces the perception that they are second-tier members of the EU family.
Romanians and Bulgarians are used to being treated as less-than EU citizens—from their mistreatment working in the fields of western Europe during the pandemic, through national measures infringing on their rights to family allowances and tax advantages, to the transitional arrangements for EU accession which limited their right to work freely in other member states. Prejudicial policies and practices are joined by derogatory comments, such as those made this year by the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, who seems to fear that a ‘migration flow could start’ via Bulgaria and who alleged that one could cross the Turkish border with a ‘50 euro note’.
The rejection of Romania and Bulgaria does not only appear discriminatory but also deeply unfair. The countries formally met the technical criteria for joining Schengen in 2011. Since then, they have been subject to control mechanisms which evaluate associated judicial reforms and the fight against corruption, the most recent (voluntary) assessment taking place this year.
Over the 11-year waiting period, their bids have received political support from the European Parliament, the presidency of the European Council and the European Commission. The parliament in particular has called for their admission to the Schengen area many times—including in 2018, 2020, 2021 and, most recently, this year.
Moreover, both Romania and Bulgaria have managed to assuage reservations on the part of countries previously opposed to accession: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Belgium and, in the case of Romania, the Netherlands. Austria had signalled its approval for the Schengen expansion, before a sudden U-turn in late November.
Jumping through hoops
The two countries have jumped through hoops to become worthy of membership, implementing extensive reforms and aligning their practices with those of their Schengen counterparts. But although joining the exclusive club has been presented as a privilege that must be earned, adopting the Schengen acquis is in fact an obligation and EU member states have a right to membership. Given all of this, the vetoes by Austria and the Netherlands read more as a show of power than a legitimately justified act.
Considered a main achievement of the European project, the Schengen area guarantees the freedom of movement of more than 400 million EU citizens, without the inconvenience of border controls. The removal of borders—and with them long lines, lost time and high costs in border policing—was meant to unite Europe, with the single market bringing prosperity for all.
The latest vote seems to have achieved the opposite, with diplomatic and economic relations among Romania, Bulgaria and Austria seemingly deteriorating. The sting of the rejection will burn for a while in Bucharest and Sofia, where similar power moves in retaliation are already being considered. But the effect of undermining the sense of cohesion, trust and fairness within the EU might smoulder even longer.
Magdalena Ulceluse is an assistant professor in international migration and ethnic relations at Malmo University's Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare, having held positions at the University of Groningen and Central European University. Her research focuses on intra-EU mobility, migration and development/inequality and the local governance of migration.