Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev and Herman Van Rompuy (26 January 2012). Photo: flickr/President of the European Council
Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev and Herman Van Rompuy (26 January 2012). Photo: flickr/President of the European Council

Bulgaria's efforts to join the Schengen area

"Joining the Schengen area is a national priority not only for the Bulgarian government, but also for the Bulgarian citizens," declared Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Bulgaria's Interior Minister, in September 2011.

Bulgaria's accession to the EU on 1 January 2007 made the Schengen acquis binding on Bulgaria, though the lifting of border controls was to apply only after a Council decision to that effect. As the Protocol Concerning the Conditions and Arrangements for Admission of the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU (Art. 4) specifies, the decision has to be taken unanimously by all EU members of the Schengen area, after evaluation procedures have established that the necessary conditions have been met. Among many other things, these conditions include technical standards for border crossing points such as electronic databases, the installation of thermo-sensitive devices and truck scanners; full participation in the Schengen Information System (SIS), Europe's largest public security database; and laws on data protection allowing Bulgaria and current Schengen countries to exchange information about individuals.

In 2007 Bulgaria submitted a "Declaration of Readiness", a letter sent to the General Secretariat of the EU Council confirming that the state was prepared to start the Schengen evaluation process. In January 2008 the interior ministers of Bulgaria and Romania signed a Declaration envisaging March 2011 as the date for full participation in Schengen, pledging close co-operation and co-ordination. "2011 is an ambitious but achievable date that the Bulgarian government has set for joining the Schengen Area," said Rumen Petkov, Bulgaria's interior minister at the time.

Between 2007 and 2010 Bulgaria gradually harmonised its legislation, fulfilled technical requirements and trained police, judicial and border authorities to meet the demands of Schengen cooperation. (For more information on these activities see this power point presentation by the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior

Between March 2009 and December 2010 the Schengen Evaluation Working Party (SCH-EVAL), the member state committee that manages the Schengen evaluation process, prepared nine field mission-based reports on police co-operation, data protection, visa policy and issuance, sea borders, air borders, land borders, and SIS/SIRENE. (While SIS collects information on individuals for whom an alert has been issued, as well as on certain lost or stolen property, SIRENE, or Supplementary Information Request at the National Entry, is used to coordinate the exchange of additional information on alerts).

A summary report "Schengen evaluation of Bulgaria" drafted by the Schengen Evaluation Working Party was issued in early June 2011 (and made public on 24 June). It concluded:

"Bulgaria has on the whole shown that it is sufficiently prepared to apply both the non-SIS-related provisions of the Schengen acquis as well as its SIS-related provisions in a satisfactory manner. Even though some remaining issues still require an additional follow-up, these do not constitute an obstacle to full application of all parts of the Schengen acquis in Bulgaria on condition that it joins Schengen together with Romania.

Thus, the preconditions have been fulfilled for the Council to be able to take the decision referred to in Article 4(2) of the 2005 Act of Accession, allowing for the lifting of internal border controls at the air, land and sea borders. The Council should return to the issue as soon as possible, but not later than September 2011."

The European Parliament, which has to be consulted on the accession of new countries to Schengen but whose opinion is not binding, had already voted on 8 June 2011. The support for Bulgaria's and Romania's accession was overwhelming. 487 MEPs voted in favour, with 77 against and 29 abstentions.

"We are in a position to welcome Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area and I hope that the Council will adopt the same position as soon as they receive our positive opinion," said rapporteur Carlos Coelho, a Portuguese MEP and member of the European People's Party. "Their citizens should be regarded as fully European citizens, and should not be hostages of populist discourse."

However, not all EU member states agreed with this assessment. On 9 June 2011 the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which brings together EU interior and justice ministers, shied away from taking the decision needed to lift border controls between Bulgaria, Romania and the rest of the Schengen countries. "The Council will return to the issue as soon as possible, and no later than September 2011," a subsequent press release informed.

According to a member state official in Brussels, speaking to ESI on condition of anonymity, the two states that torpedoed Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen accession at the JHA Council were the Netherlands and Finland. Other member states including Germany, France, Belgium, and Sweden also expressed concerns. Though they did not dispute that conditions had been met, they worried about issues that had not been assessed, including corruption. As Dutch Minister for Immigration, Integration and Asylum Affairs Gerd Leers explained after the JHA Council:

"It is imperative that all adopted judicial reform measures in Romania and Bulgaria are effective and irreversible. The Schengen system is based on mutual trust since we are asking new countries to effectively guard our collective borders. We will therefore carefully study the cooperation and verification mechanism reports on this matter, the next of which is expected soon."

When EU interior ministers met again in Brussels on 22 and 23 September 2011, the Polish Presidency tabled a compromise solution. As a first step, border controls would be lifted at Bulgarian and Romanian airports and seaports; the abolition of land border controls would follow at a later stage. Again, it was the Netherlands and Finland that opposed the proposal. As minister Leer said:

"It is also a matter of trust and confidence that our collective external borders will be safe and secure. At the moment, it is clear that there are still significant shortcomings in the field of anticorruption and the fight against organized crime."

Responding to the argument that the two countries were technically ready, Leers said:

"You can have a door locked and fitted with the latest systems, but if the guard is not trustworthy, it's no use."

Paivi Rasanen, the Finnish interior minister, noted:

"Bulgaria and Romania have indeed met the technical criteria for accession. However, we don't have full trust in their capacity to protect the external EU borders, including because of corruption, among other things."

Poland's Interior Minister Jerzy Miller was disappointed, telling reporters:

"Mutual trust means keeping promises as well. Today that promise has been broken."

Miller referred to the Protocol Concerning the Conditions and Arrangements for Admission of the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU (Art. 4), which clearly suggested that the two countries would accede to the Schengen area once technical criteria had been met.

Finland subsequently softened its stance. On 15 November Paivi Rasanen explained:

"Previously our starting point was that all borders would be opened in one go. Now we can consider a two-stage opening of borders if clear and sufficient progress has been made in the CVM [Cooperation and Verification Mechanism] reporting."

In this case, she added, Finland could envisage the lifting of controls at airports and seaports in March 2012 and at land borders in July 2012.

However, the Dutch stuck to their position. At the last JHA meeting of 2011 Minister Leers explained:

"Our position is firm, we have solid grounds stemming from the rule of law, and the fight against corruption and organized crime. We want to see convincing facts, including in the EC report. I am not an enemy of Bulgaria and Romania; I am a friend of Europe. I want people to be 100% assured crime and corruption would not enter our internal market."

In February 2012, the Commission issued its regular report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CMV). Although the report remained critical, Dutch Europe Minister Ben Knapen acknowledged progress. However, he made clear that no change of the Dutch position on Bulgaria's and Romania's Schengen accession could be expected before the publication of the next CMV report in July:

"The Netherlands seeks two consecutive positive reports which indicate sustainable and irreversible progress to combat corruption and organised crime. We will see in July, following the full report of the European commission, whether this then has been the case."

On 1 March 2012 Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was less committal:

"We believe that Bulgaria and Romania have not done enough. They have made progress, but they haven't done enough to fulfil all the Schengen criteria as we see them."

Asked by AFP how long his country would oppose Bulgaria and Romania's entry, Rutte said:

"As long as necessary. That is all up to Romania and Bulgaria. I want them to implement all the necessary measures: rule of law, fighting corruption, independent judiciary."

The Netherlands' uncompromising position has bred frustration in Bulgaria. Referring to the Dutch government's reliance on the support of Geert Wilders' anti-immigration "Party for Freedom", Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov commented:

"This is unprecedented in EU and it will backfire on them very, very badly, because not a country but a single political party is tantalizing the whole European Council. Not the Netherlands, but a single Dutch party. This is the problem."

14 May 2012

For a selection of key documents related to this topic see this special section in our Bulgaria background document library.