The long-running impasse over the Schengen accession of Romania and Bulgaria might be put to a new vote in early December.
This is at least the intention of Spain, the country that currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU and sets the political agenda.
Accepting new members into the Schengen Area, where border controls have been abolished, requires the unanimous endorsement by the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA), which gathers interior ministers from the 27 member states.
The last JHA meeting under the auspices of the Spanish presidency is scheduled to take place on 5 and 6 of December.
“We hope that during the last (JHA) Council of the Spanish presidency in December this will become a reality,” said Fernando Grande-Marlaska, Spain’s acting interior minister on Thursday morning, noting the Schengen accession of Romania and Bulgaria was a “priority” of the Spanish presidency.
“I’m sure it’s going to be possible. We’re going to do (our) best for December to get an agreement. We’re trying to reach that agreement and I cross my fingers, but we’re working very hard on it,” Grande-Marlaska added, before heading into the JHA meeting.
Romania and Bulgaria have long been denied entry into the Schengen Area, one of the most tangible achievements of European integration. The passport-free zone encompasses 27 countries, including 23 EU members, and over 423 million citizens.
The European Commission, which examines new applications, has said since 2011 that both Romania and Bulgaria have met all criteria to join Schengen, such as sharing of security information, police cooperation and border management.
The Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a new appeal for membership during her annual State of the European Union speech in September.
“They have proved it: Bulgaria and Romania are part of our Schengen area. So let us finally bring them in – without any further delay,” von der Leyen said.
But Austria is standing in the way.
The country says the persistently high number of irregular border crossings at the EU’s external borders, estimated to be about 232,350 in the first eight months of 2023, is an argument strong enough to delay further enlargement of Schengen.
An increasing number of member states, like Austria, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, have introduced temporary border controls to stem the flow of asylum seekers who arrive in frontline states and later move northwards.
“Our position is that the Schengen system as a whole does not work, therefore, we are not open to its expansion,” Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner said in August.
Austria’s position has been frontally contested by Romania and Bulgaria, who argue their territories are not part of either the Western Balkan or the Central Mediterranean route, the ones that register the majority of migrant movements.
The issue is highly sensitive in both countries, as their exclusion creates the impression of a discriminatory two-tier integration project.
Nevertheless, due to the unanimous voting rules, Austria has managed to single-handedly block the process.
During a dramatic vote last December, the country denied Romania’s ambitions, triggering a furious reaction from President Klaus Iohannis. Austria, together with the Netherlands, also opposed Bulgaria’s bid.
Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that during that same high-stakes vote, Croatia was accepted as the 27th member of the Schengen.
Since then, all eyes have been on Vienna in anticipation of a sign of change. Patience, however, is running thin: Romania has even threatened to bring Austria before the European Court of Justice to contest the recurring veto.
“We’re working with Austria, we’re working with all the 27 member states and I think at the end we’re going to be successful,” Grande-Marlaska said on Thursday morning.
Asked if Austria was still putting up resistance, Grande-Marlaska said: “Yes, but we’re trying to move forward.”__Courtesy EuroNews