Mar 8, 2013 | 11:00 GMT

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Romania's and Bulgaria's Stalled Schengen Accession

Romania and Bulgaria’s Stalled Schengen Accession

The debate over Bulgaria and Romania's admission to the Schengen zone — an area in which border controls between members are lifted — shows how contentious the issue of European integration has become, especially regarding Eastern Europe and the free movement of people. Northern and Western European countries are gradually becoming more concerned that migration could weaken national social security systems. Numerous countries will be inclined to introduce measures to curb immigration as the European financial crisis deepens and as migration, especially from southeastern Europe, grows.

The justice and internal ministers from all EU countries met March 7 in Brussels to discuss, among other things, Bulgaria and Romania's possible accession to the Schengen zone. Resistance from several Western and Northern European countries previously delayed a vote on the matter, and in light of Bulgaria's political paralysis and upcoming elections in Germany, the European Union has delayed the decision once again.

Map - Schengen Countries

Twenty-two EU countries plus Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland are members of the Schengen zone, where the abolishing of border controls facilitates economic integration across Europe by easing the transit of goods and people.

In 2011, the European Parliament cleared the way for Romania and Bulgaria to become members, but Schengen members must approve new memberships unanimously. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Finland, Denmark and Austria reportedly oppose Romania and Bulgaria's Schengen membership, stating that neither candidate country has made sufficient progress in reforming its judicial system and fighting corruption and organized crime.

Moreover, there is a fear that non-EU migrants will be able to enter the Schengen area more easily through Romania or Bulgaria because of weak border control. This concern has already arisen regarding Greece, which is seen as one of the main entry points for illegal immigrants to the European Union. Concerns about border control have led a number of countries to demand easier ways to implement temporary border controls between Schengen countries.

Denying Romania and Bulgaria membership in the Schengen zone has not had much effect on the migration of citizens from both countries; other EU restrictions on labor mobility have been more limiting. But both countries still aspire to become members. Besides facilitating the movement of goods and people across borders, the Schengen zone gives the population a feeling of being true European citizens. Since Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, they have fought the image of being second-tier members. Not only are these countries not Schengen members, they are also not members of the eurozone. Moreover, both have faced limitations in the free movement of labor within the European Union (one of the union's main characteristics). Several EU countries were given the possibility of exemptions from obligations to accept Romanian and Bulgarian workers when the Southeastern European countries joined the bloc.

In 2014, such exemptions will expire in all EU countries. This will increase labor mobility for Romanians and Bulgarians, but numerous Western European countries fear an inflow of people from the two countries. Although integrating Europe's eastern periphery is one of the European Union's main goals, Europe's crisis is making expansion less popular in Western Europe, which is already facing strong migration flows from struggling eurozone members. Several northern countries fear that increased immigration will erode national social security systems, which are already strained by the economic crisis.

In the past months, British Prime Minister David Cameron's government has promised to introduce measures to hinder migrants from abusing the social security and health care system. The United Kingdom was one of the countries that introduced temporary restrictions on labor mobility for new EU members, fearing the effects of robust immigration. Currently, the British government is especially trying to discourage migrants from Bulgaria and Romania because those restrictions will expire at the beginning of next year.

Earlier this week, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he would veto Romania and Bulgaria's accession to the Schengen zone if it came to a vote. Although they targeted Romania and Bulgaria, Friedrich's comments are part of a wider debate occurring in Germany regarding the increasing immigration from poorer European countries and the consequential threats to the national social security system. With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, the German government wants to highlight its will to keep migrants from abusing the country's social security system.

Numerous other Northern and Western European countries are having similar debates. Several moderate parties are taking the fear of migration more seriously after seeing right-wing parties grow more popular in recent years. In 2009 and 2010, the European Union removed visa requirements for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania as part of ongoing EU accession negotiations. Therefore, other countries have seen an increase in asylum seekers from the Balkans. Some countries have threatened to reintroduce visa requirements, which prompted Serbia to promise to increase efforts to stop the flow of asylum seekers.

Most countries in Northern and Western Europe have aging and declining populations and therefore need to import labor to maintain a stable workforce and pension system. It will become increasingly difficult for these governments to balance between attracting immigrant laborers and calming voters who feel that a lax migration policy is eroding social security.

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