Last December’s EU Home Affairs Council was supposed to end in celebration. However, it turns out it only takes one negative vote to create one of the biggest EU internal scandals in recent years. In this article, we analyze the reasons for Bulgaria and Romania’s rejected application to Schengen and discover how it led to nation-wide boycott campaigns against Austrian firms, artists, and politicians.
There is one specific country that was particularly ecstatic to enter the year of 2023: Croatia. On the 1st of January, the Republic not only adopted the Euro currency, but also joined the Schengen area, guaranteeing that its citizens will from now on enjoy borderless travel throughout all other 26 member states. Croatia’s admission was granted following the unanimous vote of EU countries’ Justice Ministers at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on the 8th of December.
However, not every state left that meeting particularly happy. On the same day, and during the same vote, Bulgaria and Romania were rejected from joining Schengen. While Romania’s accession was only vetoed by Austria, Bulgaria received a double refusal, with both Austria and the Netherlands rejecting the Balkan state’s application.
To explain its decision, Vienna claimed that Romanian and Bulgarian border authorities were not taking enough measures to protect EU borders against illegal migration. The country’s Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, used a quote-on-quote “internally conducted study” which stated that over 20 thousand migrants had passed through Bulgaria, Romania, and then Hungary on their way to Austria without being intercepted by local authorities. The Netherlands on the other hand invoked fears over the rule of law and corruption in Bulgaria. Mark Rutte, Prime-Minister of the Netherlands even went as far as to claim that Bulgarian border guards “could be bribed for as little as 50 euros.”
At first, we might be compelled to accept these claims. After all, Bulgaria and Romania are both battling high levels of corruption, particularly in the form of abuse of power or clientelism. However, a closer look at the Austrian and Dutch arguments makes them easily refutable.
Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, after which they immediately began procedures to obtain Schengen membership. To join the borderless area, each country had to comply with a series of specific guidelines in terms of migration, police integrity and asylum policy. What’s more, Union bodies had to conduct multiple evaluation missions in the domains of air/land borders, police cooperation, and data protection.
Both countries went through the whole process and in 2011, the EU Commission concluded that the evaluation had been finished, giving the green light to the states’ accession. At the end of that year, the EU parliament urged all member states to accept Bulgaria and Romania’s applications to join Schengen (resolution of the 13th of October 2011), claiming “they had fulfilled all requirements.” Over the years, the Parliament, together with the Commission, have repeatedly stated their support for the countries’ acceptance.
Present-day official data from EUROSTAT and FRONTEX (the European Agency of Border Policy and Coastal Guard) contradicts the data of the Austrian government. According to a report done on the first 9 months of 2022 by FRONTEX, there were close to no illegal migrant entries into the EU through the Black Sea, and an overwhelming majority of asylum seekers entered the Union through the Western Balkans, rather than through Bulgaria and Romania.
The rule of law argument, while invoking true problems of the two EU members, is inappropriate when talking about Schengen. Right after EU accession, Romania and Bulgaria were placed under the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification (MCV), a verification body that was charged with monitoring the progress made in terms of Justice transparency and corruption by the 2 members states. Previously, states such as the Netherlands had been using the MCV as a reason for keeping the Balkan states at the borders of Schengen. However, this is no longer applicable, as both Bulgaria and Romania finished their MCV evaluations in 2019, and 2022 respectively. It would be bizarre for the EU to invoke this argument, given that Hungary and Poland (both Schengen members since 2007) have had much more serious problems with the rule of law, and have even risked losing their EU funds multiple times in the last few years.
Yet here we are, 11 years after, with Bulgarians and Romanians still waiting hours at land borders to enter other EU countries and losing approximately 10 billion euros due to missed investment opportunities (according to estimations from the Romanian Ministry of Economics). Now more than ever, the vetoing countries’ decision seems bizarre, not only to the 2 Balkan countries, but also to the other EU countries that supported their Schengen acceptance. Speculators and opposition members in both Austria and the Netherlands have claimed that the governments’ decision to veto might be linked to this year’s elections, where politicians will have to please an increasingly anti-immigration electorate, one that would most definitely oppose the enlargement of the EU borderless area.
Perhaps this story might seem marginally important to the average EU citizen, especially given the much more serious crises the EU is currently facing, from war at its borders, to rising oil and electricity prices, to populism. Still, the long-term effects of this refusal should not be ignored or underestimated by European leaders.
Immediately after the disappointing Council vote, Romanian far right and pro-Russian party AUR experienced its biggest increase in voter support since it first appeared on the ballot in 2020, reaching 20% at the end of the year. Party leaders organized public protests in front of the Austrian embassy, as well as at gas stations of Austrian company OMW across the country (still, how ironic that a party completely against free borders did all of this!). Moreover, they propagated the “#boycottAustria” campaign, encouraging Romanians to stop buying any products produced by Austrian companies, sell their tickets to concerts and exhibitions organized by Austrian artists, and close their accounts at Austrian banks. Even big state companies, such as the Romanian Railway Company (CFR) or the State Transportation Agency (CNAIR) chipped in and ended their contracts with Austrian owned bank BCR.
Perhaps most alarming, however, is that this vote led to a record low level of EU support, as well as to the spread of Eurosceptic attitudes into the mainstream. Romanians and Bulgarians alike feel betrayed by the European Union and consider it unjust that they have had to wait for over 11 years to receive Schengen membership. As such, they find refuge to their anger in the rhetoric of anti-EU extremists and Russian propagandists that claim to protect them from “evil Brussels that discriminates between member states”. What is particularly alarming is that even traditional, centrist parties in the Romanian political scene have embraced these anti-EU talking points since the Council rejection vote and political figures have even started endorsing conspiracy theories about the Western world’s plan to impede Romania and Bulgaria’s development.
The most important lesson the EU ought to learn from this is probably the urgent need to rehaul its “unanimity vote” rule. Austria and the Netherlands are not the first example of veto abuse within the EU: earlier this fall, Hungary blocked almost 18 billion dollars in aid funds to Ukraine. Europe cannot afford to see important decisions blocked by populists and opportunists to the likes of Karl Nehammer or Viktor Orban in the future. But more importantly, with war at its borders and increasing authoritarian tendencies already within the bloc, the EU cannot afford to lose Bulgaria and Romania. That means it must punish them whenever they step against European democratic values, but also reward them when progress is (and indeed has been) made.