The Schengen Zone: Another Symptom of the EU Dysfunction

by Pauline Moullot

On October 23rd, in the midst of heated talks on the Greek default and the European financial crisis, Donald Tusk, the Polish president and temporary head of the European Union, will try one last time to convince Europe to let Bulgaria and Romania enter the Schengen area. Unfortunately, the feud over whether Bulgarian and Romanian citizens should be allowed to freely cross the borders of 25 European countries has shown once again that the European Union is beholden to the national politics of its member states. Again and again, leaders have chosen to paralyze Europe and win their respective citizens’ votes rather than execute a pan-European vision.

Allowing Bulgaria and Romania to enter the Schengen zone would enable their citizens to travel across the continent without showing a passport. Already part of the common market, this decision is largely symbolic to Bulgaria and Romania, re-affirming that their countries are as European as the French and German. With Cyprus, the two countries are the only European Union countries not part of the Schengen zone. The decision should be a no-brainer.

The enlargement of Schengen has become a sensitive political issue due to fears of illegal immigration and the expansion of organized crime. Both Bulgaria and Romania have ports on the Black Sea, which some fear could lead to an increase of smuggling and crime. The two southeast European countries technically fulfill all the requirements to enter Schengen, but an independent judiciary that will fight corruption and organized crime has emerged as another tacit criterion. At the end of September, the Dutch immigration minister rejected the Schengen area's enlargement, claiming Bulgaria and Romania were not doing enough to fight crime. France and Germany tacitly backed him, afraid that organized crime, illegal immigrants, and human trafficking rings would flood into their countries.

Admittedly, Bulgaria and Romania still have a lot of work to do when it comes to government and business transparency. The only EU country as corrupt as those two, according Transparency International, is Greece (and we all know what happened to the Greek economy). But the way the other European countries have addressed this issues reveals that what matters to Europe’s leaders is public opinion in their home countries—not what’s best for the continent as a whole. National elections are stalling what many consider an inevitability. “In the long term, they are still supposed to enter one day, the only question is when" says Yves Pascouau, a fellow at the European Policy center in Brussels.

The hold up reveals what’s wrong with depending on pan-European consensus whose politicians are elected locally. "Clearly the western European Union countries denied Bulgaria and Romania the entry because of national elections calendar," says Pascouau. 2012 is an electoral year in Spain and France. In Spain, the government decided this summer that Bulgarian and Romanian citizens would need permits to get a job. In France, with many right-wing voters mistakenly conflating Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants with the unpopular Roma, Sarkozy isn’t likely to support their entry into the Schengen zone.

Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, explains, "Immigration policy has always been a problem in the EU. It's never been centralized and countries examine border control at a national level."

While a unanimous vote is necessary for almost every other European issue, each country decides of its own immigration policy. So when France set up an impromptu border station at its Italian border last April, it was a snub to the Schengen agreement but not illegal.

While the founding members of the EU like France or Germany are against the enlargement of the Schengen area, the new eastern ones support it. Poland especially sees the issue as a part of its diplomatic role to reinforce the dialogue between the West and the East. "The Polish presidency is going to do whatever it takes to try convincing its partners to let Bulgaria and Romania join Schengen," says Pascouau. It is a way of showing its own citizens that Poland can have a real impact on the international stage.

For Bulgaria and Romania, this decision is a political blow, showing once again that many in Europe consider them only "secondary zone members." "Bulgarians and Romanians feel stigmatized. They feel a difference of treatment between them and the other members of the EU," says Marie-Line Duboz, a research fellow in European integration.

Last April, Western European countries rejected the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the free labor market, afraid that migrants would take the jobs of their own citizens. After the 2004 enlargement of the EU, the same question came up, but a report published by the European commission two years later revealed that the ten countries who entered in 2004 represented less than 1% of the working population in any of the old EU member states with the exception of Austria (1.4%) and Ireland (3.8%). The flood of migrants simply did not happen and it seems unlikely that it would happen if Romania and Bulgaria were to join the labor market, let alone the Schengen area.

"Traditionally, Bulgarians prefer to migrate to Southern countries, rather than Northern Europe," adds Vladimir Shopov, a Bulgarian expert on European politics. The Northern European countries don't really have anything to fear, and the real reason for their opposition is to seem tough on migration for their election campaigns.

Every European issue is seen through a national prism. While the entrance of Bulgaria or Romania into the Schengen area won’t sink or save the European economy, these decisions decisions spark frustration, feelings of discrimination, and anger. By continually tackling European matters from a national point of view, European leaders may provoke an anti-Western European sentiment in the East. If the EU can’t execute on this—a mostly symbolic vote—then it doesn’t bode well for them coming together to fix their financial mess.


Pauline Moullot is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal

[Photo courtesy of the European Parliament]

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