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February 4, 2023

Politicising the Schengen objective

‘Joining the Schengen Agreement is Romania’s most important foreign policy objective, a special project in the success of which we put major financial, administrative, institutional and, not least, human efforts’ Administration and Interior Minister Traian Igas was saying in a statement in Brussels last week. Igas attended a ministerial meeting where the Salzburg Forum states adopted a joint declaration in support of Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen area according to the set time-table.

Our joining the Schengen area is no longer a mere technical matter as we were being told a few years back. While in office, ex-Interior Minister Vasile Blaga always claimed things were going well for Romania and that, slowly but surely, we were drawing close to EU-required standards. The same says current Minister Igas, according to whom Romania has successfully been though six different Schengen assessment visits looking at complex areas such as police co-operation, visas, privacy policy, sea, air and land borders, with our country’s preparedness for the implementation of the Schengen acquis being recognised as high by the visiting evaluators.

Currently we are looking at the last evaluation visit, the one that is going to appraise the SIS/SIRE area.
An independent observer may find himself in the ungracious situation of counting exclusively – at least at this chapter – on official information supplied by the relevant ministries. And all such information depicts an absolutely optimistic if not bluntly idyllic picture, in a definite contrast with the political and general perception trends we can identify with European leaders and even Brussels.

Nonetheless, in a recent interview with Mediafax, former EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen defends Romania in this respect: ‘As far as I can tell – says Verheugen – the one most important condition – the one regarding the outer border – is clearly met. I also know there are critical voices rising from a number of member states, but all those refer to points that we have already discussed – weak administration, organised crime and corruption – and claiming the access of such elements would be dangerous for the Schengen Area. But, to me, these are not convincing arguments. (…) My view is that probability is high that we may see Romania in the Schengen Area in the first half of next year.’

We cannot help appreciate Mr. Verheugen’s assertions, all the more so as, prior to this country’s joining the EU, the former enlargement commissioner had often been an open critic of Bucharest and its ‘shortfalls’. The certain thing is that, indeed, the major issues are not the technical ones, but mostly those regarding corruption, organised crime and a weak administration. More than that, both internally and externally, the matter of joining the Schengen Area has turned into a political question for both Romania and Bulgaria.

Bucharest is being regarded with reticence. We are not sure as to the difference the support of the Salzburg Forum countries could make, but we know for a fact that the position of Berlin and Paris will definitely tip de scales. But news coming from both said chancelleries does not sound too good. It seems that other EU member states are reluctant, too. The recent Nicolas Sarkozy – Traian Basescu incident, with the French president refusing to engage in a spontaneous dialogue during the summit of European leaders was just the tip of the iceberg. ‘Big sister’ France has been Romania’s number one supporter in its NATO and EU efforts but now, in the year of grace 2010, relations seem to have come to a dead end. The causes of that happening are debatable: they may have to do with the two presidents’ private relationship, with specific issues such as justice or corruption in Romania or the recent Romanian Roma deportations from the Hexagon. It is the result that we know.

Some of the EU member states are also worried about Bucharest’s policy of offering a relaxed Romanian citizenship granting programme to citizens of R. Moldova. They are wondering about how we could possibly secure our Eastern border as long as more and more Moldovans are given easy access to the Union across the Prut River (EU’s Eastern border). Same voices even criticise the accession decision in Romania’s case, which makes Bucharest officials’ tasks even more difficult. Officials who, at least at a declarative level, keep up their optimism.

However optimistic political decision-makers may be there are still a few questions they are invited to answer. Even if we meet Schengen accession requirements from a technical point of view, corruption and administration will still be factors of disruption. The recent Interior Ministry scandal ending in the dismissal of the Police head and of a secretary of state did not help either. Many would have wondered what it would be like to grant access rights to European intelligence to someone like the former Vaslui Police chief Aurelian Soric, who did not hesitate to publicly defend local crime heads and usurers. What confidence could anyone have in the Romanian justice when not a single week goes by without us learning about some judge being arrested or prosecuted for bribery or influence peddling?

The external politicisation of Schengen decisions has its correspondent in local politics, which shows that the tension is being fully perceived. Main ruling party PDL really has few achievements it could put on the list, therefore joining the Schengen Area in 2011 would be a bubble of oxygen. Hence the exaggerated importance given to the subject. And, since success is uncertain, scapegoats need to be singled out in the event that the accession may be postponed. Well, those appear to be the opposition leaders. More recently, Social-Democrat President Victor Ponta is being accused of endangering Romania’s chances in this respect by stating in Brussels that Romania was not prepared to enter the Schengen Area, an accusation that he has vehemently denied.

Politicising strategic objectives serves no one anyway. On the other hand, Brussels officials should, perhaps, look at the matter in a more detached manner. Joining the Schengen Area is not going to resolve this country’s major problems of foreign debt, low living standard and lack of immediate mobilising prospects. It is not going to resolve the wage cuts or the scarce healthcare funds either.
A doses of optimism comes from the same former Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen, who says the monitoring in the area of justice is discrimination: ‘I am absolutely convinced that its EU membership helps Romania resolve its weaknesses and I find that blaming Romania for weaknesses that exist in other countries as well is a little unfair. But the other European states are not being monitored, for example. It is not fair, as it highlights Romania and gives the impression that Romania is the only country having problems with its judiciary, with a weak administration, with corruption and with organised crime. This is simply wrong’.

Is Verheugen realistic? We are going to find out in less than half a year.

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