Romania must join Schengen, Romanians deserve to be respected

Politics - October 24, 2022

Now or never. We could conclude the story of Romania’s efforts to join the Schengen area so far, while waiting for the last (but maybe not the last) chapter, which should be written in early December this year. 

Beyond the exaltations and disappointments – for Romanians have also had their share of statements such as “we have done everything that was asked of us, now we can no longer be refused” – from our politicians, but also the more frequent “you are not yet ready” – from others, on this subject, there are some constants in the almost 15 years since it has been debated, which cannot be ignored: the technical conditionalities required by Europe have long been met; it remains bizarre, even if it is hard to prove, that the repeated refusal of some states is linked to certain self-interests (consider the case of the Netherlands and the Port of Constanta); making the condition of reception into Schengen conditional on the lifting of the CVM, although a matter of common sense after all, should not be used every time when there are no other counter-arguments. So why, then, are we again knocking on closed doors? Especially as there is now a favourable conjuncture – such as the time of Romania’s decision to join NATO, after giving overflight space to American planes, before the end of the war in Kosovo – in which the West is preparing to move trucks, trains, ships, planes with food, medicine, etc. for the Ukrainian army from the West to the East over the winter. Could it be the inability of Romanian politicians who have been at the helm of the country for the past 15 years to negotiate this deed with the West?

The European Parliament adopted on Tuesday 18th of October, by a large majority, a resolution asking the European Council to take the necessary steps to admit Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area.

Noting that the Schengen area is “one of the greatest achievements of the European Union”, MEPs point out that Member States have not yet taken a unanimous decision on the admission of Bulgaria and Romania, although the two countries have long fulfilled the necessary conditions. According to the press release issued following the vote, the EP considers that maintaining internal border controls is discriminatory and has a negative impact on the lives of mobile workers and citizens.

Obstructing imports, exports and the free movement of goods in ports also harms the EU’s single market, the EP press release says. According to the document, by the end of 2022, the Council should take all necessary steps to adopt a decision on the admission of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area of free movement. 

The EP position has political value and can be seen as a signal, but the decision belongs to the Council and should be taken at the JHA Council on 8th-9th of December. In the meantime, Commission experts should produce a technical (re)assessment report.

The EP resolution was adopted with 547 votes in favour, 49 against from extremist parties and 43 abstentions from representatives of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party.  Could this be a sign that the Netherlands will oppose membership again?

Following the EPP vote, former technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, now a Renew MEP, claimed that Romania’s failure to join Schengen was due to the “butcher’s shop policy” of former governments unable to negotiate this goal. Two other Romanian MEPs, Vasile Blaga, former interior minister in the PDL Emil Boc government, who announced at the time that Romania had completed preparations and met the technical conditions for Schengen, and Corina Crețu, former presidential adviser to PSD president Ion Iliescu, blame the failure on “diplomacy” and, at the same time, warn of a rising tide of Euroscepticism in the two countries following a possible refusal.

“There are three arguments that should lead to a quick decision on the integration of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area. First there is the technical argument, which should be sufficient, as it was sufficient for the other Member States that are already members of the Schengen area. Romania meets all the technical conditions for Schengen, and the war in Ukraine was a test for the EU’s external border, which Romania passed with flying colours. The second argument is the moral one: Europe has been teaching us the lesson of solidarity for years. Solidarity in the face of the war for refugees and migrants, solidarity in the face of the energy crisis. Romania has done its homework without comment. We have shown solidarity without reservation and not because anyone forced us to. We did it because Romanian citizens believe in these values. The question is: Is Europe capable of putting into practice to the end the lesson it is teaching? The third argument is a practical one that concerns the future of the European Union. This future is threatened by Euroscepticism and we see this more and more often in national elections. The future of the EU depends on how it treats the citizens of each Member State. Does not the refusal to take a legitimate decision on the integration of Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen create a wave of Euroscepticism in these two countries? Isn’t the lesson of Brexit enough?” said MEP Vasile Blaga in the European Parliament, quoted by the Romanian press.

“It is very sad. For 11 years and more we have been fulfilling all the conditions for entry into Schengen and all the time there have been egoisms linked to electoral elections in different EU countries. The Netherlands has been threatening with a veto for several years now and the Schengen issue has not been put on the agenda of the JHA Council until now. It seems to me that Romanians do not deserve this treatment that we have been receiving for years, because we meet all the conditions and I think it is a lack of solidarity that is inappropriate for the times we are living in, times when trust in the EU could very well decrease, because of these huge injustices that Romanian citizens are experiencing. It is a failure of diplomacy, we still have hope that in December it will be put on the agenda, as hoped. We, however, are the country on the border that defends the border through which wheat passes from Hungary, from Ukraine to the West and vice versa, so it was time for Romania to negotiate very clearly some advantages for the Romanian people”, said MEP Corina Crețu, member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, to Euronews Romania.

Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă and President Klaus Iohannis are optimistic that the West “will recognise everything we have done” in the war in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă said in an interview with Bloomberg in early August that he expects Romania to join Schengen this year and that Brussels will drop the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) for our country.

Ciucă said he expects Romania – after more than a decade of waiting – to gain entry to the Schengen area before the end of the year, a step that would eliminate long waits at Romania’s borders with other EU states and increase Romania’s attractiveness to foreign investors. Brussels will also drop a regime that monitors Romania’s progress in reforming the judiciary and stamping out corruption, the Romanian official said, after years of criticism from the EU executive.

“Everything we have done since the conflict started shows that we are ready to become a Schengen member,” Ciucă said, referring to the EU area without border controls. 

“We really expect all the other EU leaders to recognise everything we have done,” Prime Minister Ciucă argued.

President Klaus Iohannis also said he was “optimistic” but reserved about a time horizon. After a visit with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to the military base in Cincu, he said he had conveyed Romania’s “legitimate expectation” of joining the Schengen area. 

“I am optimistic”, said Klaus Iohannis, but said he did not want to make “an extremely optimistic statement about the duration”.  

Mark Rutte said the Netherlands “is not in principle against it”. Asked if he could agree to Romania’s accession this year, the Dutch prime minister said “I can’t give you a deadline”. 

But the Dutch politician did bring the CVM into the equation. He said that Romania “must have taken enough positive steps” to have “a structurally better rule of law” before becoming a Schengen member and that he would like to see a CVM report on how Bucharest is doing in detecting and solving cases of “corruption and organised crime”.

“The Netherlands is not in principle against Romania’s accession, we believe that all countries that meet the conditions should join. (…) It is very important that all the information will be on the table, the European Commission is working on that now. This is the procedure in Schengen. The Netherlands is not opposed to Romania joining Schengen, but we have to do it in a transparent and fair way. That’s why I mentioned the CVM”.

“We need to have enough positive steps and we need to have a better structural rule of law. A lot of steps have been taken, what needs to be established now in the CVM, about corruption, about organised crime, that’s what the CVM is, they are working on that to assess and then we have to assess together”, the Dutch Prime Minister said in Cincu, Brasov county.

Until recently, Germany, France, Finland and the Netherlands had remained, in the public arena, the countries that had expressed positions that were, if not against, at least sceptical about our accession to Schengen. The Franco-German formulation was rather that the Schengen area should be reformed before further expansion, and in the meantime Germany and France have declared their support for Romania.

These countries form an informal group of foreign embassies in Bucharest that are very concerned about the progress of reforms in justice, the rule of law and the CVM, as can be seen from the letters they have sent over the years to the Romanian authorities in Bucharest on the subject (the United States has often joined them in their public communication efforts, but does not play a role in the Schengen issue).

So, even if we no longer have to convince Germany – which, in the Merkel era, was one of the dialogue partners that needed “arguments”, nor Finland, which is following the same acceptance discourse, in addition to the Netherlands, Sweden remains to be convinced. The counter-argument: the CVM.

“Sweden has taken note of Chancellor Scholz’s speech (…) The Swedish government is currently assessing many issues in the context of the upcoming EU Council Presidency in the first half of 2023. Schengen and the review process are among these issues. The security of EU citizens, the fight against organised crime and the protection of EU values will be the cornerstones of the Swedish presidency. As for the CVM, our expectation is to see a continuation of the Commission’s obligations to assess Romania’s progress under the Mechanism and to implement the CVM recommendations”, said Therese Hydén, Swedish ambassador to Romania, quoted by the Romanian online publication Panorama.

Moreover, the report on the rule of law, drafted this summer by the European Commission, mentions, among other things, the high level of corruption in our country and the reduction of DNA powers, but the document also expresses concerns about the independence and freedom of the press.

The CVM report of June 2021 was also harsh, because Romania had not yet abolished the Special Section at that time, which has happened in the meantime, but also because the amendments to the justice laws made by the former political power have not been annulled. Also, the way in which the SCM and the Judicial Inspectorate operate, as well as the appointment of the heads of major prosecutor’s offices, were among the objections raised by the European Commission.

And the bizarre facts remain…

Such as the fact that Romania’s accession to the Schengen area could threaten the supremacy of the Dutch port of Rotterdam, considered by some to be speculation, by others the argument that explains everything.

With a proper logistics platform on Romanian territory, the port of Constanta could significantly increase the volume of goods trafficked through it and, specialists in the field claimed a few years ago, create around 100,000 extra jobs. Or every job created in Constanta means one less in Rotterdam, they argued. According to data released by the government, 65 million tonnes of cargo passed through the port of Constanța last year. In comparison, however, the port of Rotterdam handles more than 450 million tonnes of cargo a year and the waterways are immaculately maintained and the infrastructure is excellent.

“We, the Romanian state, are affected by this problem, more recently, the last time I know, the whole western part of Romania prefers to do its naval imports through Rotterdam, to come on the Main-Rhine side, on the Hungarian side to Romania,” said Daniel Georgescu, director of the Waterways Administration, a few years ago.

The fact is that Romania’s entry into the Schengen area would bring major benefits to the economy, as Finance Minister Adrian Câciu explained. An important role is played by exports, which would be greatly simplified. At present, customs controls at borders with countries in the free movement area mean lost time for Romanian carriers. Carriers, who have been calling for years for governments to speed up entry into the Schengen area, say it would increase their external competitiveness, because blockages at Romanian customs to Hungary and Bulgaria mean losses of between €800 and €1,000 a day for each blocked lorry, according to Ziarul Financiar.

Or the fact that the General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations (IGSU) of the Interior Ministry signed a contract with the Dutch company Damen on Tuesday for the purchase of two multirole vessels for firefighters. The contract was signed in a public ceremony and IGSU chief Raed Arafat said the vessels cost €20 million and €24 million respectively. The contract was signed the day before Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited Romania.