Posted on October 5, 2011

Schengen Row ‘A Sign of Things to Come’

Daniel Mason, Public Service Europe, October 4, 2011

The rejection of Bulgaria and Romania’s bid to join the passport-free Schengen travel zone is a “sign of things to come” in Europe because xenophobic and far right parties increasingly “call the shots”–according to one member of the European Parliament.

Opposition from Finland and the Netherlands to the two south-eastern European countries’ entry to Schengen is “completely, purely and unambiguously about internal politics,” says Claude Moraes, speaking in the week after the application was thwarted.

The British politician, a Labour MEP who speaks on home affairs and justice for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, insists that both Bulgaria and Romania should be allowed into the 25-member club because “the assessment based on actual evidence is that they are ready to join”.

Twenty-two European Union nations, plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, are part of the Schengen area–named after the town in Luxembourg where the original treaty was signed in 1985. The bloc operates without internal border controls but works to strengthen the external boundary. Bulgaria and Romania have been seeking access after becoming the EU’s newest members in 2007.

Their application was put on the backburner on 22 September when Finland and the Netherlands vetoed their entry, citing concerns about corruption, questioning the robustness of legal reforms and expressing doubts about their ability to secure the EU’s external border.

But Moraes says Bulgaria and Romania’s progress in these areas has been “greater than has been widely reported”. And although he accepts that they “clearly have issues with crime and internal security,” the evidence suggests they have made “great improvements”. In his view, the Dutch and Finnish objections are not legitimate.

“I think what people have to do is what other EU countries have done–which is look at the evidence and not be afraid of their own right wing populist parties, which is what’s happened.” Moraes blames what he sees as the malign influence on their respective governments of Geert Wilders’ Freedom party in the Netherlands and Timo Soini’s True Finns, who have made immigration a “toxic” issue.

“It’s a sign of things to come, with countries that have had fairly fast and recent growth of xenophobic and far right parties,” he says. Another example he uses is Denmark, where the previous government, under pressure from the right wing Danish People’s Party, caused controversy by announcing the reintroduction of controls on its borders with Sweden and Germany.

“The Danes before their election closed the customs element of Schengen, and again nobody with any real honesty or analysis would say that was done other than for electoral purposes,” Moraes claims, pointing out that the country also opts out of EU justice and home affairs. The newly elected centre-left government led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats has already said it will revoke the border controls.

If it wasn’t the influence of the right that blocked Bulgaria and Romania’s progress, then, Moraes asks: “Why just the Netherlands and Finland? I think it’s too coincidental.” He says all EU countries are concerned about cross-border and organised crime but had “looked at the assessment of how Bulgaria and Romania have tried to clamp down on these issues”.

Nor does he accept that the Dutch and Finnish governments were merely reflecting the will of the people in a European environment increasingly sceptical about deeper integration. “I don’t think it’s a question of public opinion being rejected by the elite, as it were. I think it’s a question of far right political pressure calling the shots in countries where I think governments and people, if they saw the evidence, would be positive.”

In September the Polish EU presidency proposed a compromise deal which would have seen Bulgaria and Romania’s air and sea ports opened this year and a decision on land borders delayed until 2012. But Moraes opposes such a deal, saying: “Either they’re in or they’re not.”

Comparing it to the approach taken to Turkey’s much-delayed accession to the EU, with opposition from France and Germany dressed up as “imaginary political and diplomatic steps,” he adds: “I don’t want on a micro level that to happen with Romania and Bulgaria. Either they’re fit to join or they’re not. I think the staging of it is a spurious way of dealing with the issue. It creates doubt.”

Moraes is more positive about the European Commission’s recently announced plans for the reform of Schengen, devised in part as a response to the unilateral introduction of controls on the Italian and French border after an influx of migrants from North Africa in the wake of the Arab spring. The changes, already opposed by a number of member states, hand greater control over Schengen to the commission.

Under the new rules–should they be approved–countries will be allowed to reintroduce controls for five days, in emergencies. Apart from that, the permission of the commission and fellow Schengen members will be required. “The big positive is that Italy and France will not be able to do again what they did before,” Moraes says, though he has reservations about the potential to shut a country out of Schengen if they break the rules, and the possibility of creating new grounds for re-imposing border checks.

Moraes is a British MEP, and the UK is one of only three EU countries, the other being Ireland and Cyprus, that have not implemented Schengen. He believes that was the wrong decision. “”I’ve always supported British membership of Schengen, and always though it was hypocritical of [former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher to say no to Schengen but yes to all the security measures in Schengen.

“She was blocking Britain out of the economic and cultural benefits, and the sheer inconvenience of it at ports and airports, while buying into the second element of Schengen which were the security measures.” Britain “wanted to have our cake and eat it,” he says. “That was always unfair and contributed to the fact that Schengen didn’t become a complete EU-wide benefit.

Meanwhile Bulgaria and Romania do want to join Schengen and being excluded is a “major issue” for them, Moraes believes. Both countries have “improved as nations socially and culturally” since joining the EU, and should be allowed to take advantage of “one of the big advantages of membership”.