For Romanians and Bulgarians, the prospect of passport-free travel within Europe has just slipped further into the future. Sandor Pinter, the interior minister of Hungary, which took over the rotating presidency of the European Union last week, announced on Thursday that Romania and Bulgaria would not be able to join the open-borders Schengen area until October 2011 at the earliest, instead of March as had been originally planned.
Pinter said it was now clear to both countries what requirements they still had to fulfill. He said he would try to broker an EU political agreement on Schengen enlargement by the end of June. "I am an optimist -- I never regard anything as a lost cause," he said. "We are aware of the French and German positions, but there is a defined course of legal steps of action that has to be followed." The interior and justice ministers of the Schengen countries will be the key decision makers in the process.
This decision is a positive result for France and Germany, who recommended in December that both countries be refused entry into the Schengen zone until they showed measurable improvements in terms of judicial reform and managed to tackle organized crime. Berlin and Paris demanded that the countries make progress in the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), an anti-corruption monitoring procedure that the EU imposed in 2007. This special mechanism was established to smooth the entry of both countries into the EU, help them address their shortcomings and simultaneously safeguard the workings of EU policies and institutions. The French and German point of view was shared by other EU countries and gained majority support with the 25 Schengen member countries themselves.
Romania has reacted angrily to France and Germany's objections. President Traian Basescu said on public television on Thursday that the French and German leaders had not told him at the EU summit in December about their intentions to block their Schengen membership a week later. "The problem is not so much that our Schengen entry will be delayed by a few months … but the abuse. Either we are equal partners or not."
In an interview with Romania's NewsIn news agency, Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi apologized for his previous suggestion that Romania could put hurdles in the way of Croatia's accession to the EU as a retaliatory measure. Romanian MPs had also said they could delay ratification of a Lisbon Treaty protocol on allowing 18 new MEPs to join the EU parliament.
Despite his bitterness, Basescu admitted that Romania had numerous corruption problems. In a speech to the government and top judges on Wednesday, he said that Romania would not take retaliatory measures against Croatia or other incoming MEPs and that he "assumes political responsibility" for the delay.
Meanwhile in Bulgaria, reactions have been much more relaxed. In December, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov described France and Germany's criticism as "completely justified" and said they were working on the problems.