Does Romania deserve to join Schengen? The risks of a politically negotiated decision

Romanian politicians from both the government and the opposition have been shaking hands these days in the European Parliament to counter a possible danger: the Dutch opposition to Romania’s acceptance into the Schengen area. If Prime Minister Mark Rutte says no, President Klaus Iohannis’ plan to score a major political victory, perhaps the biggest of his term, will be put on hold for at least a year. 

Never has Romania had a better chance than now of joining Schengen and thus escaping the second-class EU country complex. The key states, Germany and France, seem to have agreed, and the technical conditions have been in place for years, the Czech EU presidency is fully supportive. There is also the war in Ukraine, with the refugee flows, an additional argument to tighten control at the Union’s eastern border. 

If Romania and Bulgaria were to be kept out again, and instead Croatia was to be accepted into the club and then at the beginning of next year also to switch to the euro currency, the humiliation would be all the greater for Bucharest. 

Two influential Romanian MEPs in the EPP group, Siegfried Mureșan and Rareș Bogdan, pleaded Romania’s case on Wednesday in the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, even though the difficult issues raised by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her speech on the state of the Union had little to do with Schengen enlargement. 

In Rareș Bogdan’s speech, there was even a veiled threat. „In the name of solidarity, trucks, and trains loaded with grain from Ukraine to Western countries cross Romania every day, and in the opposite direction trucks and trains with aid for the Ukrainian people cross Romania”, Bogdan said in his plea for Schengen. 

Even the opposition, USR MEPs and those from Ciolos’s party REPER, are lobbying Duch PM Mark Rutte, their political group colleague in Renew, and the Commission, to achieve the country’s goal of Schengen accession. A general mobilization, then, for the now classic national interest. 

The European Commission itself is getting a bit fed up with the headache called Romania. It already has enough ongoing crises to deal with: Poland and Hungary, the war in Ukraine, energy prices, the rising cost of living in general in all member states, and the rise of the far right, so one less problem would make all the Brussels bureaucrats breathe a sigh of relief. 

So, really! Why not welcome Romania into Schengen? 

Perhaps, from a technical standpoint, Romania is perfectly ready to join, and not a fly can pass undetected through the Romanian border ( except for the tons of smuggled cigarettes sent by drones or planes from Ukraine or Moldova that fly under the radar). Perhaps for geostrategic reasons, it is better for Romania to join Schengen in order to strengthen the eastern border as much as possible. 

After all, do Romanians not deserve to be spared the humiliation of waiting in queues before entering the territory of other EU Member States, even though free movement is a right they have earned since accession in 2007? How much more money should Romanian transport companies lose waiting for hours and days at customs on their way to the West? 

There is only one answer to all these questions: 15 years after integration, Romania deserves to be welcomed into the Schengen club and to stop being treated as a second-class country. 

But does the political power in Bucharest deserve such a prize from Brussels? Does the European Commission deserve to look into the obvious setbacks Romania has suffered in recent years in the field of justice? Does a country with growing democratic imbalances and a press that is almost entirely bought by political parties with millions of euros in cash, belong to the club of civilized countries? 

What’s the problem, you might ask, since countries with greater democratic failings, such as Poland, Hungary or Malta, are well served by Schengen. Except that they joined Schengen in 2007, and their degradation took place afterward. 

It would be a mistake for Romania to be rewarded since it is not far behind Hungary and Poland. The two countries are today being punished with funding cuts and other sanctioning procedures by Brussels. The powers that be in Bucharest are not holding back from torpedoing justice even now when they know that such a move could jeopardize Romania’s chances of escaping the CVM and joining Schengen. 

With the tacit agreement of the liberals and social democrats, the UDMR tabled an amendment to the justice laws that would blow up two specialized prosecutors’ offices, DNA and DIICOT, one designed to fight high-level corruption, the other organized crime. Both criminal phenomena remain at high levels in Romania. 

If the amendment tabled by UDMR is voted in the Special Commission on Justice Laws, and the prosecutors of the two structures will need a High Court degree, then the disaster will be complete: 70% of DNA and DIICOT prosecutors will go home, the files they have worked on will have to be redone from scratch and the work of the two structures will be blocked in the long term. It would be a kind of OUG 13 packaged differently, the political death blow that even the worst enemies of justice, led by Drangea, have failed to apply. 

Can the EU afford to reward a state that blows up the rule of law by letting entire armies of the corrupt and organized crime networks off the hook overnight? What sense, then, do Ursula von der Leyen’s promises made in the European Parliament plenary have, where she announced that next year the Commission will present measures to update the legislative framework to fight corruption? „We will raise standards on crimes such as illicit enrichment, influence peddling, and abuse of power, beyond the more classic offenses such as bribery,” said Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union address in Strasbourg. 

We will see if Romania manages to persuade the Netherlands to give it a free hand to join the Schengen area. A technical assessment mission by the European Commission is expected to be presented to the European Council in October, with a decision to be taken by the member states in December at the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council. So there is still time for Brussels to use its influence to temper the destructive momentum of the PSD-PNL-UDMR coalition. 

But it would be a mistake with long-term destructive effects if the EU takes a politically negotiated decision with its eyes closed. Poland and Hungary are today the EU’s problem countries, two ‘electoral autocracies’ with no connection to European values, precisely because they were not sanctioned in time and their leaders negotiated their peace in Brussels for years. Will the EU repeat its past mistakes with Romania? 


Translated from Romanian


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