The bloc, however, allowed Croatia to join the borderless zone as it sped up efforts to integrate the Western Balkans in view of changing geopolitical realities following Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

As of January 1, Croatia became the 27th member of the Schengen area. But Bulgaria and Romania, who had acceded to the EU six years before Croatia and satisfied the technical criteria to join the Schengen area as early as 2011, were denied membership.  

On October 19 last year, the European Parliament overwhelmingly supported Bulgaria and Romania’s acceptance into the borderless zone, and on November 16, the Commission called upon the Council to accept the two nations, alongside Croatia, into the Schengen area “without any further delay”. 

Yet, in the Council voting on December 8, these two countries were blocked by Austria and the Netherlands. 

Politically-motivated blockages

The leading party in Austria’s ruling coalition, the People’s Party (OVP), opposed Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen bid by declaring them unprepared to secure EU borders. This was in discord with its coalition ally, the Greens.  

As a catch-all conservative party, the OVP’s attitude resonates well with the high level of Euroscepticism in Austrian society. Many observers have also commented that with this stance, OVP wanted to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of the upcoming elections in Lower Austria. 

Meanwhile, the Austrian veto is also intended as leverage to pressurise the EU for a comprehensive revision of border control and asylum policies. Pointing out the increasing number of asylum-seekers arriving in Austria without prior registration in another EU member state, Austria has raised several demands, such as introducing rapid asylum procedures at the EU’s borders and enabling asylum applications in safe third countries.

The grounds for the Dutch veto were corruption and organised crime. By terminating the publication of Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) reports for Bulgaria in 2019 and for Romania in 2022, the Commission had formally recognised that the two countries satisfy EU benchmarks in the rule of law, the fight against corruption, and organised crime. 

Unsatisfied with this verdict, the Netherlands asked for additional assurances about their level of progress. On November 1, the Dutch parliament, predominantly with the votes of the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), accepted a motion asking the government not to drop its veto to Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen membership

Eventually, the VVD-led government changed its position for Romania but found it “too early” to do so for Bulgaria. Since the two countries were voted as a pair in the Council, the Netherlands gave a negative vote for both. The decision is greatly influenced by the strong anti-immigrant atmosphere in the Netherlands, championed by the right-wing populist PVV in opposition. 

No blockage for Croatia 

Considering Austria’s concerns with illegal migration, Croatia’s joining Schengen is not risk-free. Croatia is not only located on the Western Balkan route, which is one of the main migratory pathways into the EU, but also shares a 1,350 km-long and geographically challenging border with three non-EU countries (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro). 

Considering the Netherlands’ concerns with corruption, the difference between Croatia and the other two is, at most, negligible. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2021, Croatia (63rd place) is ranked only slightly higher than Romania and Bulgaria (66th and 78th places, respectively). 

These concerns alone should have blocked Croatia’s entry into the Schengen area. Yet the worries over Bulgaria and Romania did not apply to Croatia, which was admitted without any populist resistance anywhere in Europe. This was arguably thanks to the EU’s favourable approach towards the Western Balkans. 

Pressing geopolitical challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s attack on Ukraine have pushed the EU to accelerate the integration of Western Balkans into EU structures. 

Finally, 2022 was marked by a series of breakthroughs: accession negotiations were launched with Albania; North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted candidacy status; and a draft regulation for the long-awaited visa liberalisation with Kosovo was finally agreed upon. 

Given the political, social, and economic interconnectedness of the Western Balkans, it is hard to consider Croatia’s admission to both the Schengen and Euro areas in 2022 as distinct from this trend. 

Yet, while the EU is making gestures to Western Balkan countries, Bulgaria and Romania’s geopolitical belongings seem to be taken for granted by some member states. There is even some reason to suspect that a relatively smaller and geographically closer country is preferred over the two countries on the Black Sea coast. In any case, as long as populism persists, there are limits to European integration. 

What to expect next?

Despite calls from some member states, it is unlikely that the EU will soon put Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen membership back on the agenda.

The Swedish presidency has already stated that they will not push for this until Austria and the Netherlands change their positions. Even though there will be a special EU summit on migration in February, given the differences of opinion among EU members, a comprehensive revision in EU migration policy, as demanded by the Austrian government, will be very difficult to achieve. 

When it comes to the Netherlands, a dramatic change of stance is not expected until the Commission formally declares the CVM processes as complete. Under these circumstances, Bulgaria and Romania will have to wait as their citizens continue to face inconveniences during travel to the Schengen area countries and bear significant economic losses in foreign trade and tourism.

The admission of Croatia and the denial of Bulgaria and Romania is another typical example of the fact that in EU affairs, a country’s fulfilment of pre-determined benchmarks does not necessarily guarantee its achievement of the desired result. 

As long as the final decision belongs to the member states and the rule of unanimity is followed, the outcome will depend on the political calculations of decision-makers at the national level. 

If the decision-makers want to exploit the rule of unanimity for political gains or are carried away by waves of populism, they can find an excuse to obstruct any process without much consideration of the formal criteria or the collective interests of the EU. 

Yet, any decision that creates the perception of double standards will undermine EU values, disrupt European harmony, and bolster Euroscepticism. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World