What? Schengen. That magical group of European countries that have decided to abolish passport checks and border controls between each other. It’s been in the news a bit lately, with high-level figures like Jean Claude Juncker expressing support for Romania and Bulgaria to finally join. But it’s not all been good or straightforward.
On Tuesday (11 Dec), the European Parliament voted on a report which underlined that Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen readiness should not be linked to the rule of law. The report also states that both countries have met the actual accession criteria.
“The [EU] Council simply doesn't know what to say. For the past five years the Council has been in breach of European rules failing to adopt a decision on the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area,” Rapporteur Sergey Stanishev (BG, S&D) said.
What’s the problem? Well, the Dutch have for a long time now opposed Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen accession, citing corruption as the primary reason. However, the broader attitudes towards Bulgaria seem to be shifting, with EPP leader Manfred Weber recently stating his support for the country to join in 2019; the recent CVM report on the two countries also highlighted the considerable progress made by Bulgaria while criticising the rule of law backsliding in Romania.
Therefore, The Romanians are now anxious that they might be left behind. For several years, Romanians took pride in at least being slightly better than Bulgarians when it came to anti-corruption and the rule of law. If the latter enter Schengen in 2019 and Romania does not, I am genuinely afraid the country might go clinically insane. This most recent wave of outrage and self-pity over what many of them decry as racist and colonial-minded actions from the Dutch ought to be a good indicator.
(As an aside, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Nederlanders from the Zwarte Piet debate, it’s that calling them racists and colonialists is bound to make them reconsider their position.)
Butwhathatabout? As far as I can tell, the main line of attack revolves around the Netherlands’ “hypocrisy,” with issues being invoked that might not be directly about Schengen. The Dutch have in effect become one of the top enemies for Romania’s nationalists and the latest victim of our national inferiority complex.
Former Romanian President Traian Basescu, now in opposition, is stirring the pot by insinuating without evidence on TV that the Dutch PM and the Dutch VP of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, have each visited Romania recently in order to put pressure on Bucharest so that a Dutch company, Damen Shipyards, would win a bid with the Romanian Army to build 4 corvettes.
Plenty of other public figures and headlines are also pushing the narrative that Romania is being treated unfairly according to double standards, and that the real corruption is in the very Western European countries which criticise Romania. For instance:
ALDE MEP Ramona Manescu accused countries like Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands of hypocrisy and ignoring big cases of corruption (read more, if you dare).
PSD MP Catalin Radulescu had his usual spiel on the CVM report: ‘double standards,’ ‘unfair and hypocritical’.
Or headlines like:
“Maximum hypocrisy from Belgium and the Netherlands; How the two states are violating EU sanctions on Russia”
“Why the Netherlands doesn’t want us in Schengen or why our corruption isn’t as good as others’ corruption”
I’m not going to insist too much on this. Suffice to say that it’s entirely unsurprising that Russian propaganda channels are jumping on this opportunity to ‘whatabout’ and drive a wedge between two European countries. This is also fully consistent with the Russian modus operandi (yes, I’m pretentious) in Romania, a country historically distrustful of Russia where tactics focus on creating animosity with partners as opposed to cultivating the relationship with Russia.
But wait, there’s more! This attitude goes beyond politicians and the media. The European Council on Foreign Relations made something really cool – a ‘EU coalition explorer 2018,’ based on a survey of expert opinions of 877 respondents who work on European policy in government and think tanks. According to this data, Romanian experts chose the Netherlands as the most disappointing EU member state. One can infer that the Netherlands’ repeated criticism of Romania is partly the reason why.
So what? As we’re moving into 2019, the Schengen issue is a huge wedge between Romania and its European partners. While it’s easy to point at foreign disinformation and efforts to divide, what’s more concerning is how willing Romanians (politicians, media, administration officials) are to do the same for their own short-term gains. As seen in cases like Brexit or the 2016 US elections, Russian operations take place where the ground is already fertile, and boy is Romania fertile.
For a while now, I’ve been worried about our leaders’ carelessness with Romania’s EU position. The Schengen issue is potentially very damaging, and populists have no qualms with demonising other EU member states, while the government insists the Council presidency will go swimmingly and that we’re completely reliable.
#Romexit is still far-fetched, but 2019 might determine if we have a collective mental breakdown because we didn’t get into Schengen.