European Parliament calls on the European Commission to refer Austria to the European Court of Justice

Politics - August 8, 2023

Austria’s veto of Romania’s accession to the Schengen area has created anti-European sentiment and caused major damage not only to the economy but also to the climate. This is the position of the European Parliament, expressed in a resolution recently adopted by an overwhelming majority of its members. At the same time, considering this veto to be discriminatory, the EP calls on the European Commission to refer Austria to the European Court of Justice. At the same time, MEPs set a new deadline for the two countries to be accepted into the European free movement area: the end of 2023.

Even if the document does not have the force of law, it can be interpreted as a strong political signal, coming about half a year after the JHA Council in which the two countries, which have long met the technical criteria, were again denied Schengen access on political grounds. Despite critical statements by the Romanian and Bulgarian authorities towards the position of Austria and the Netherlands respectively – which opposed Bulgaria’s accession – and isolated attempts to ask the CJEU to rule on the matter (in particular the complaint lodged by a Romanian MEP on his own behalf), this is the first time that the assurances given by the Presidency-in-office of the Council of the European Union, Spain, that Schengen enlargement is a priority have been backed up by a firm EP position.

The EP resolution was adopted by 526 votes “for”, 57 votes “against” and 42 abstentions and follows a petition by the NGO Clean Energy and Climate Change Association. The same NGO submitted a request for a review on environmental grounds of the decision to postpone Romania’s accession to the Schengen area to the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU, which was submitted by the same NGO, founded by former Romanian minister Răzvan Nicolescu.

Under current legislation, the EU Council has 60 days to decide either to reject the application or to approve it and schedule a new vote on Schengen, Nicolescu argued. In the event of a rejection, he announced that he would open a case at the EU Court of Justice (CJEU).

“We are aware that the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU has published our request for a review of the decision to postpone Romania’s accession to the Schengen area. The request was made on the basis of the Aarhus Convention and takes into account the fact that on 8 December 2022 the JHA Council did not take environmental aspects into account when deciding not to join Schengen. We are in a climate crisis that has become, according to UN reports, the main source of migration. Last week was the hottest on record. We do not have the luxury of allowing tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide to be produced by lorries waiting at customs because of an Austrian Chancellor who has decided that he no longer wants to abide by the EU treaties. I publicly call on the EU Council experts to continue to treat our request seriously in order to avoid a trial at the Court of Justice of the European Union. We are talking about the most important issue on the EU’s agenda: fighting climate change,” said Răzvan Nicolescu.

The EU Council is now led by Spain, which has declared itself a supporter of Romania and Bulgaria joining Schengen. But the vote in the Council must be unanimous. Austria now opposes not only Romania’s but also Bulgaria’s accession, and the Netherlands has maintained its critical stance towards the latter.

Delaying Romania’s Schengen accession, negative environmental impact

What are the arguments of Nicolescu’s NGO? One area affected by the postponement of Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen accession is the negative environmental impact of continued border controls, due to CO2 emissions from vehicles waiting to cross the border and be processed and whose engines are left running while waiting at customs, argues the Association for Clean Energy and Combat Change. Underlying this conclusion is a report by the consultancy KPMG, published earlier this year. The report shows that an estimated more than 46 thousand tonnes of CO2 are emitted per year by road vehicles while waiting at border control, as a result of the postponement of Romania and Bulgaria’s admission to Schengen. According to the report, more than 311,000 thousand mature trees are needed to capture the carbon emissions associated with waiting at the border.

The research involved calculating carbon emissions over a one-year period from road vehicles waiting to cross the borders between Romania and Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary and Bulgaria and Greece. The data was based on the number of vehicles crossing, vehicle types and average waiting time. To collect the primary data, KPMG specialists sent requests for information to relevant public institutions in Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, as well as to private organisations.

The research is based on data and information obtained from these requests and received by the 17th of March 2023. The study considered emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, light-duty vehicles, large passenger buses, minibuses and passenger cars (including all types of vehicles from small cars to SUVs). An estimate of waiting times was then made, based mainly on information provided by the National Union of Romanian Road Hauliers (UNTRR) following surveys and interviews with road transport operators and logistics companies, as well as KPMG analysis. Some information has also been gathered from real-time statistics compiled by the General Inspectorate of the Romanian Border Police, which are published on the institution’s website.

Austrian and Dutch vetoes cause huge losses to Romania and Bulgaria’s economies

Dimităr Dimitrov, Executive Director of the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers, recently explained at a meeting in Kozloduy, attended by representatives of Romanian and Bulgarian authorities and business, why Schengen accession is important for business.

 “It is important for business, it is important for people. All hauliers crossing this border suffer huge losses – about one hour of a heavy goods vehicle’s stay at the border is equivalent to €10 and/or €240 per day for each truck. And, in addition, the transport sector also suffers in terms of the purely human problems they have, waiting at this border without basic sanitary and hygiene conditions,” Dimitrov told Bulgarian state radio, quoted by Rador.

According to the transport companies, the waiting time at land borders for TIR trucks is currently between 24 and 72 hours, especially at the crossing points to Bulgaria (Calafat-Vidin and Giurgiu-Ruse), but also to Hungary. Instead of losses, before the December 2022 deadline, hauliers were forecasting increases in business with the long-awaited Schengen accession of the two countries. At least these were, in November 2022, the estimates of Romania-based DSV Road, an international transport logistics firm with branches and facilities in more than 80 countries on six continents.  According to DVS Road Romania, joining Schengen could – and would – bring a number of benefits to the local transport industry, such as eliminating waiting times at the border and increasing transport capacity and the number of orders.

The company estimates that Schengen accession will mean an average 20% increase in its business.

“Romania’s presence in the Schengen area will accelerate the development of the local economy. This will significantly reduce waiting times at the border, which have a cascading effect on the entire Romanian economy, which is also felt by companies and individuals. At present, drivers’ driving times, higher fuel consumption while waiting and delays in delivering goods to customers lead both to penalties for hauliers and to problems in supply or in the running of some production processes, as well as to higher costs for end customers. In addition, by eliminating stacking times at the Hungarian border, transit times for all our groupage lines to Western Europe will be shortened by a minimum of 24 hours,” said Sergiu Iordache, Managing Director, DSV Road, in November 2022.

Economy Minister Florin Spătaru estimated that Austria’s veto in the JHA Council, which prevented Romania from being admitted to Schengen, means losses of 10 billion euros annually for Romania’s economy.

“Such a decision means €10 billion that Romania’s economy could lose by not joining Schengen and about €1.5 billion that every citizen or company that has to transit the borders by not joining Schengen pays,” he said.

“A decision that should have been technical has turned into a decision that, in my view, goes against that principle of solidarity that we should be showing at this moment. I think there are some costs that we have been paying for many years, because technically we have met these conditions for a long time,” the former minister added immediately after the vote in the JHA Council in December 2022.

To what extent do the stated political reasons for the veto stand up?

Romania has met the technical criteria for entry into the Schengen area for more than 10 years, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was also confirmed in August 2022 by Germany, which indicated that Romania meets all the requirements and will support full Schengen membership. The main reason given by Vienna was linked to migration, specifically Romania’s ability to control migration at its borders. But this reason is dismantled in the Austrian newspaper Der Spiegel.

“There is no mention of a significant migration movement through Romania. This is shown in an analysis of November 8, 2022 prepared in the Austrian Interior Ministry headed by Gerhard Karner,” says a recent article in Der Spiegel, which repeats data from an investigation published late last year.

The results of the “first surveys on asylum applications”, consulted by Der Spiegel journalists, show that 93% of Indian citizens registered in Austria arrived in Europe via Belgrade or another airport in Serbia. Less than 1% of new arrivals named Bulgaria as their travel destination. Serbia also facilitated the flow of North Africans to Austria until recently. Of the Maghreb immigrants interviewed in Austria, up to 95% said “Serbia was the first country in Europe,” the Austrian newspaper’s investigation said.