Croatia is preparing to join the Schengen area but Austria remains “main” in the face of the joint candidacy of Romania and Bulgaria
Enlarging the passport-free Schengen area has been seriously questioned ahead of a key vote in Brussels, as Austria and the Netherlands continue to be concerned about the admission of Romania and Bulgaria.
opposition brewed for days, but became patently clear on Wednesday after EU ambassadors met to discuss the matter.
European Union interior ministers are expected to vote on Thursday to decide the long-blocked nominations. Unanimous approval is required to admit new members into Schengen and remove checks at all internal borders
“Austria is the main obstacle,” a senior EU diplomat said on Wednesday afternoon, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“It is already clear that there is no unanimity,” said another diplomat. “Those who disagree will make their views heard during the debate.”
Austria argues that the new influx of asylum seekers via the Western Balkan route demonstrates that the eastward expansion of Schengen should be postponed.
The country is expected to receive more than 95,000 asylum applications this year.
“We are under enormous pressure from illegal immigration, even though we are a landlocked EU country and not an external border country,” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said last month.
“The European asylum system has failed.”
For its part, the Netherlands is open to Romania’s membership but remains opposed to Bulgaria’s entry due to what it considers to be unresolved elements of the rule of law.
Bulgaria has had an interim government since August after a series of inconclusive elections.
However, Austria and the Netherlands intend to support the third outstanding candidate to join Schengen: Croatia, making its admission a foregone conclusion.
The Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, intends to organize two separate votes on Thursday: one on Croatia and a second on Bulgaria and Romania.
Despite the unfavorable circumstances, the Czechs still plan to go ahead with the votes, understands Euronews, even if the agenda could change at the last minute.
Diplomats admit that even if Romania managed to overcome Austria’s opposition, it would still be prevented from joining Schengen because its candidacy has become politically and technically linked to that of Bulgaria.
“Decoupling is very complicated for legal and technical reasons. The Council should seek an opinion from the European Parliament before it can come back to the issue,” said an EU diplomat.
“That wouldn’t really be helpful.”
A negative result on Thursday would deal a political blow to Romania and Bulgaria, as the duo have been on the Schengen waiting list since at least 2011 – years before Croatia.
The European Commission and the European Parliament have concluded the two countries are ready to unite Schengen area and urged Member States to approve their offers without further delay.
In recent years, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Belgium, countries once opposed to Schengen enlargement, have softened their stance and come on board.
But as membership requires unanimity, a simple “no” can derail the whole agreement.
The Council could return to the issue in March, under the incoming Swedish presidency, diplomats have said.
Ivan Demerdzhiev, Bulgaria’s acting interior minister, hinted that his country would retaliate against Austria and the Netherlands if his country’s bid was not successful, but gave no more details on what this would mean in practice.
“The Netherlands and Austria are trying to overcome their internal problems through their position on Bulgaria, but it should be clearly noted that this is not the European position. Our response will be reciprocal to what we receive,” Demerdzhiev told Euronews Bulgaria on Tuesday.
“When we are asked to take a position on such issues, we will also keep in mind that we must not always stick to what exist as values of the Union, as principles of action of the Union , but that we could also solve various other problems through our (own) positions, which concern European issues.”
Schengen allows cross-border travel without the need for a passport or going through border controls. It currently encompasses 26 countries, including 22 EU Member States, and nearly 420 million citizens.
Joining Schengen is a legal obligation for every EU country.
Only Ireland, which negotiated an opt-out decades ago, and Cyprus, which remains divided between North and South, have not asked to join the zone without a passport.