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To Schengen and Back

Published on , , Sofia

Until recently, the Bulgarian government preferred to comment on the Schengen topic within an officious discourse, while adhering to the thesis that Bulgaria had met the technical criteria for its accession to the Schengen area. Neither the embedding of a special text in the Dutch government's coalition agreement signed last fall, which bounds Bulgaria's and Romania's Schengen membership with positive results in the annual reports of the European Commission under the CVM (Cooperation and Verification Mechanism in the area of justice and home affairs), nor the sharing of this position by leading European countries like France and Germany, could take the Bulgarian government out of the hypnotic trance of "the technical readiness". Moreover, given the approaching elections, the Schengen membership has been promoted a national priority and an apotheosis of the government's success in combating organised crime and corruption.

Meanwhile, the interim report of the Commission in February came and went but the decision for Bulgaria and Romania has been postponed until after the annual report in July. The report, however, bluntly states that the time has come for real results in the problematic areas and that the establishment of rule of law has been a national task of the entire society. Sofia's European partners have hardly expected to read exactly this before welcoming it in Schengen. Nevertheless, the government has maintained a seeming calm, demonstrating unwavering certainty in the country's Schengen future.

However, just a few days before the crucial meeting of the Council of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers on 22 September, which is expected to give clear Schengen perspectives to Bulgaria and Romania, the government lost its nerves. "The last straw" was the statement of the Netherlands on Friday that it would work with all means against the adoption of both countries because of the unsolved problems with corruption and organised crime. In response, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov gave a special briefing on Saturday morning (incidentally it was a working day in Bulgaria) to declare that "The Bulgarian citizens are not second-class citizens in Europe, nor is Bulgaria's EU membership a second-hand one". He warned that if on 22 September a decision was not taken, "that meets the interests of all in Europe and especially the best interests of the Bulgarian citizens," Bulgaria "shall need to carefully consider our entire policy from now on regarding the support we give to the reform of the European legislation on Schengen".

It is natural for the government not to share the view of a possible (and logical) linking of the Schengen criteria with the results of the monitoring mechanism in the field of justice and home affairs. Formally, there is no such a link, which has been repeatedly emphasised by the European Commission. At the same time, everyone admits that Schengen means trust and that it is the key, albeit unwritten criterion. However, currently trust is a scarce commodity in the EU, not only in terms of Schengen - the debt crisis in the euro area has deprived the last euro idealists of their illusion of the shared values as a basis for mutual trust. The riots in North Africa and the Mediterranean have sent waves of refugees to the EU, which proved to be unprepared to accept them. The migrant crisis between Italy and France and their subsequent appeal the internal borders to be reintroduced at the discretion of affected countries clearly showed how trust has been compromised in the Schengen area itself.

Last but not least, there is also a crisis in the domestic political trust in many EU countries, where governments are forced to balance national interests with the European ones, while surviving on the national political scene, sometimes at a very high price. Such a dilemma is being experienced, for instance, by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in terms of the debt crisis. Similarly, the Dutch government is forced to survive in these difficult times, moreover with coalition partners such as the far-right nationalists of Geert Wilders.

All this context has complicated and impeded the process of Schengen accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Although Bulgarian authorities' resentment of this "unfair treatment" and "double standards" may sound somewhat understandable, given that the rules have been changed underway, the paradox is that in fact it is not shared by the citizens. "Most of Bulgaria’s citizens agree with the EU actions and consider that the delay of Bulgaria’s membership has not been unfair," according to an opinion poll of the Open Society Institute – Sofia, released in August 2011. Moreover, "the majority of respondents – 54.12% - consider that the main reason is the unconvincing performance in fighting corruption, organised crime and reforming the judiciary."

The delay of the Schengen membership has dealt a serious blow to the ruling party, Open Society analyst Marin Lessenski writes, for at least three reasons: "First, it was one of the two pillars – along with the eurozone –on which the government relied to score a key victory in its ‘European policies’. Second, this is happening in an election year and every failure would be calculated – at least hypothetically – in the election results. Third – and probably the most serious – is the fact that the most frequently cited reason for the delay is the lack of trust on behalf of EU partners because of Bulgaria’s inability to deal conclusively with organised crime, corruption and judicial reform. This is bad news for the governing party which after all bears the political responsibility and would reap either the benefits from a success or the negatives in case of a failure."

However, besides the paradox that the official Bulgarian resentment against the postponement of our Schengen membership (or at least against the reasons for that) is not shared by the public opinion, there is another one - it will not influence voters' political choice in the upcoming elections. This eloquently expresses the trend of recent years - not to vote for programmes, fulfilled promises or clear principled positions but for one-day heroes on the principle of sympathy or a protest vote.

It turns out that the Bulgarian society agrees with EU's position, that the country cannot become a member of Schengen, while the problems in justice and internal affairs are not solved, but it is going to do nothing, in turn, to sanction the government for its failure! To paraphrase the words of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov, the Bulgarians obviously do not mind being treated like second-class voters, why then should they mind being second-class EU citizens? Note how often people ask in forums and social networks, and even in the mainstream media "Why do we need this Schengen at all?!"

Against this background, we can conclude that it doesn’t matter what decision the Council of Interior Ministers will take on 22 September. Nor the European Council in October. Bulgaria will be ready to join Schengen when its own citizens see in Schengen, as well as in the CVM, incentives for conducting profound reforms and establishment of real rule of law. Because, as demonstrated by our accelerated accession to the European Union in 2007 - you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

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