After a decade of stalled negotiations for entry into Europe's free travel zone, the Schengen area, Bulgaria finds itself once again on the threshold of entry. Exogenous factors like the war in Ukraine and internal ones like Croatia entering Schengen, have led to the EU once again mulling the question of Bulgaria and Romania's status.
The new European Commission's technical inspection report is coming out this week and will be positive. But it is only the first issue before the 8 December European Council, where member state leaders will have to give a final blessing for Sofia's and Bucharest's entry into Schengen - or the lack thereof, while rubber-stamping Croatia's entry. Romania's entry could well be approved because of its great efforts to resolve internal problems and lobby for the cause.
Bulgaria, however, is looking like an also-ran. In spite of the Commission's scrutiny and a resolution backing Sofia's entry, approved with overwhelming support by the European Parliament, its inclusion has been scuppered by the opposition of one country - the Netherlands. The Dutch parliament passed a resolution last week obliging the government not to take "irreversible decisions", and again highlighted Sofia's problems with organized crime, corruption and the rule of law.
This gives the Bulgarian government just over a month to activate all diplomatic channels and avoid being the last continental EU country outside the free travel zone.
11 years after the European Commission first acknowledged that Bulgaria has met the technical criteria for Schengen entry, Sofia is still not a member. The findings of the new technical inspection mission, which ended on 15 October, were presented to the ambassadors of the member states on Wednesday, 26 October, and the Commission says they are positive.
The European Parliament also called last week by a large majority to "correct this injustice" (in the words of Socialist leader Irace Garcia Perez) in a resolution of a recommendatory nature and a clear message to the European Council.
The Netherlands throws a spanner in the works
Just a day after the European Parliament's decision, however, the Dutch Parliament voted its resolution expressing opposition to Bulgaria and Romania's accession to Schengen. In it, MEPs call on the government in The Hague "'to ensure further investigation into the surveillance of the borders by Romania and Bulgaria, on the basis that the Netherlands takes a strict and fair view of the functioning of the rule of law and the reduction of corruption and organized crime in both countries, and until then not to take irreversible steps".
In his answers to Parliament, Prime Minister Rutte unexpectedly referred to the cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM) - the monitoring that the European Commission imposed on Bulgaria and Romania for over a decade, which, however, was replaced by the new rule of law mechanism. He is apparently actively talking to the Romanian side and has been assured that the results of the latest cooperation and verification report will also come into play when assessing their Schengen readiness. "Bulgaria's specific problem is that monitoring is not part of these talks", the Dutch prime minister adds.
What happened to the CVM?
Formally, of course, Schengen and monitoring are completely separate. A Commission spokesperson told Capital weekly that "the Commission has never made a link between Schengen and the monitoring mechanism". Mr Rutte's answers, however, are quite clear - The Hague does make such a link and Sofia has not done what's needed to placate them.
In fact, the so-called CVM was informally dropped for Bulgaria, but not for Romania. Bulgaria, along with all European countries, is now being monitored through the new rule of law instrument, which is much more extensive and detailed. But the monitoring has not officially stopped because, as is obvious from the new mechanism, the problems have remained the same for years. So, in fact, the drawback for Sofia is that there will be a new report for Romania before December, but not for Bulgaria.
Can Sofia do something?All of this does not mean that Bulgaria has completely missed the train. But in order to get things moving, Sofia has to improve its act in preparation for the 8 December Summit - just as Romania has been doing in recent months.
For example, in Bucharest, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca promoted a package of laws in the area of justice that would indeed be in full compliance with the justice system of the European Union and would lead to the modernization of the legal system in Romania. A hand has also been extended to the Netherlands. "Where they think there are problems and they want to come and check on the spot, we are ready to accept this bilateral cooperation so that they can be convinced that we are ready for access to the Schengen area," he said. Romania's foreign minister is also actively traversing EU capitals - and especially Prague, which presides over the EU Council currently, to actively lobby for his country's accession.
The problem for Sofia is that there is no regular government to coherently advocate for Bulgaria's accession, which appears to have stifled coordination between the country's institutions and the diplomatic core.
The most nightmarish scenario that may come out of this would be for Romania to enter independently, alongside Croatia, and for Bulgaria to remain the only continental member without access to Schengen (Cyprus is also out). This would condemn the country to even more monstrous queues at the borders and even greater dangers of isolation in the future.