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Schengen enlargement shaping up for March 2012

natalie hamill, 18 November 2011

Earlier this week, Finland announced it no longer opposes Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the Schengen zone in 2012, providing their entry is managed in two-phases. No doubt in pre-Eurozone crisis days Finland’s decision to drop their veto would have been closely analysed, but the fact that it has only captured limited attention should not be considered a reflection of its impact on shaping Schengen: the EU’s internal border-free club.


The expansion of the Schengen area has proved a particularly divisive issue for EU member states; that this latest wave involves two poorer countries which will be responsible for securing the EU’s eastern border has undoubtedly antagonised the proceedings. Finland in particular has been a firm advocate of delaying Romania and Bulgaria’s accession.

For those already in the 25-member ‘Schengen club’, loyalties seem to be drawn along neighbourhood lines and domestic sentiments. The southern and central EU states have consistently argued in favour of the accession of their eastern neighbours – it was a prominent feature in the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, earlier this year, and the current presidency holder, Poland, made the resolution a key item for their six-month agenda. It was under Poland’s guidance that the two-phase compromise first materialised, in an attempt to woo the more hesitant northern states into line.

And hesitant they have been. The crux of the matter is just how successful have the domestic reforms been and, perhaps most importantly, how secure are their external borders? Romania and Bulgaria have met all the necessary accession criteria but tales of organised crime and high-level corruption remain worryingly frequent – have these areas really been adequately tackled?  Border control also remains a big concern. After accession these borders will become the EU’s final border control with the east and there is real apprehension that, in extending the Schengen area to Romania and Bulgaria too early these porous borders may be poorly secured and the EU could see a rise in irregular immigration. For the northern states Schengen enlargement has been very much a question of timing – essentially, are Bulgaria and Romania structurally ready to be admitted to the border free zone in 2012?

The stop-start progress has increased Schengen friction, with talk of a ‘two-tier’ Europe inevitably raising its head. It is easy to equate the divisions to one of prejudice – the richer states against the poor – rather than judging it on a question of security. Both the Bulgarian and Romanian governments have been too quick to take the slow proceedings as a modern day snub: to see themselves as the second class citizens of Europe. It is likely that the issue would have become even more volatile if energy and attention hadn’t been diverted to the Eurozone crisis. As it is, Poland, eager to find a solution under its leadership, may have achieved this with its two-stage process.

The two-stage process is the ultimate compromise – keeping both sides happy but actually changing little. Bulgaria and Romania get what they want – to join the area on time, just in two stages. At the same time, their more measured introduction to the Schengen area also placates some of the northern states worries, by splitting the accession into two steps. Under Poland’s proposals, in March 2012, the eastern countries will relinquish control of their sea and air borders, then, subject to a satisfactory progress review in July, land border controls with the EU will also be dissolved later in the year.

Whilst the solution is practical (and managed to win the sceptical France and Germany over), it initially failed to sway either Finland or the Netherlands who both vetoed the move at the end of September. However, with Finland now announcing that they have ‘changed sides’, the battle for Bulgaria and Romania is nearly won.

The Netherlands could, technically, still obstruct the accession of Romania and Bulgaria by itself (all EU Schengen states, which includes the Netherlands, must approve their accession for it to go ahead) but it seems unlikely to stand in the way alone. On top of that, recent trade ‘hiccups’, such as lorries of Dutch tulips being turned back at the Romanian border implies that the waiting states are prepared to play ‘hard-ball’ to get their way.

Whilst the Dutch government has insisted it will not review its position until the Commission’s next report, due in February 2012, with Finland’s defection we can expect an altered stance in time for March, with a swelling Schengen area likely to follow shortly after.


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