At the Albita checkpoint between Romania and Moldova, the police use sniffer dogs and the latest technology to control their borders.
But despite spending one billion euros to meet the Schengen criteria — to allow its citizens to move freely across European borders — some EU members say Romania is still not ready to join.
Suitcases are opened, vehicles are inspected and passports, visas and registrations are checked repeatedly.
The aim is to make sure that the border between a European Union member and one outside the EU is secure.
Catalina Avatajitei, who is part of the Romanian border police team, described her work: “This the regular bus going to Portugal. There are 44 passengers. Two-thirds are non-European Union citizens, the other third are EU citizens. So these people come from Moldova and are going to Lisbon. There are also Portuguese and Romanian citizens. The passports have been verified to make sure they meet the conditions to enter the country.”
Whether controls were stricter on the night because euronews’ cameras were filming is not certain. What is sure is that Romania with the help of EU funding, has spent one billion euros to upgrade its border surveillance.
Along with sniffer dogs the guards use state of the art technology, such as night-vision cameras, to monitor the border.
Although the only signs of activity had been farmers and animals, two days earlier three illegal immigrants were stopped. Proof, the Romanian authorities argue, that their country is ready to join the Schengen zone.
The Schengen agreement allows EU members to travel without passport control, and one which would make Romania the final or at least most eastern border, with its non-EU neighbours, namely Moldova and Ukraine.
But some EU members disagree, and last month, Romania and also Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen was delayed for the second time this year.
With all the improvements that have been made Romanian Border Inspector Cornel Marius Ursan said he does not understand why Romania is not in Schengen.
“At this Albita crossing point, border police from other Schengen countries came. So did officials from Frontex. They all said they were satisfied with the work we conduct here. I don’t know for what reason we haven’t been accepted. I can only say I am disappointed.”
There is frustration from many in Romania, who say they are being kept out despite meeting all the conditions, but the Dutch and Finnish governments argue not enough has been done to fight corruption and ensure the rule of law.
In other words, Romania and Bulgaria have yet to convince some EU members that their collective external borders are safe and secure.
The director of Romania’s anti-corruption unit, Janica Arion Tiganasu, said this is simply unfair.
“For the first time, corruption has been added to the rest of the conditions for joining Schengen. This is a first for any candidate state that wants to join this organisation. All the other states were not asked to comply with this condition and the question was not raised at the beginning of the process, when Romania joined the EU. It only had to fulfil technical conditions. So, it is better to establish the rules at the beginning of the game and not make them up as we go along.”
Last December Romania’s anti-corruption agency secretly filmed border personnel counting money. They led to the arrest of over 240 border guards and custom officers at various checkpoints with Ukraine and Moldova.
Although no one has yet been convicted, anti-corruption officials argue this is proof that Romania is cracking down on border bribes and illegal trafficking and it is doing more in the fight against corruption than Schengen members such as Greece.
But for Vasile Lincu, the head of Romania’s police and custom workers trade union, it is still not enough.
“What we saw on television was rather a media show, I am not saying that there is no corruption within the border crossing points, but they focused on the small scale traffic, which represents a very small operation against the corruption in Romania. They only hit the base of the pyramid and they did not go all the way to the top to the real beneficiaries.”
Romania and Bulgaria are the EU’s poorest members and the concern is that as long as there is corruption there will be poverty and vice-versa.
But there is also concern that in 2007, when these two countries joined the European Union, Bucharest and Sofia vowed to complete some pending clauses such as judicial and institutional reforms. Four years later, these reforms are still unfinished.
Victor Alistar heads Romania’s Transparency International (
). He says Bucharest should not accuse Brussels of treating Romanians as second class EU citizens.“It’s not about a double standard approach. It’s about an approach related to the security of the Schengen system and security of our European partners to this mechanism. That is actually the problem and if Romanian authorities want to understand, they will solve the problem. If they don’t, they will continue to blame and say it’s double standards and cry and appeal to proud (nationalist) feelings and so on and they will not solve the problem.”
Back at the border between Romania and Moldova, lorry drivers are fed up with two things: long queues and politics. They blame the government for budget cuts, but they also blame Brussels for asking them to change too quickly.
One driver told euronews: “There are not enough people, not enough personnel. There are only two custom officers for all these vehicles. And President Basescu keeps cutting back. I understand he plans to even cut back more. If he continues to get rid of the personnel, pretty soon we’ll have queues all the way to the western border.”
Another added: “If they under-estimated us? Is that what you’re asking? Yes, a little. We can’t be at their level, just like that, all of a sudden.”
At a farm not far from the Ukrainian border, 90 percent of the wheat and cereals that are produced are exported to EU countries.
Ovidiu Portariuc has created this successful business thanks in part to EU funding.
Yet not being part of Schengen means more hours at the border with sometimes a 30 percent increase in delivery costs. It is a lose-lose situation for him and his clients.
He hopes his government, and other EU members, will stop using Schengen as a political football.
“It’s a kind of frustration because we made some efforts. I know our country made some efforts on this point and now we see no results. I hope in the future it will be solved. Maybe soon it can be solved so everyone can win. Otherwise, we feel that it’s like double-standards. Our countries, Romania and Bulgaria , these countries are judged with another measure, with another point of view. Maybe it’s our perception, maybe it’s different but I can tell you how we feel here.”
Within the EU, there is talk of a Schengen compromise. That land border controls will stay in place until 2013 but air travel will be passport free. A hopeful sign while Romania still waits for the barriers to be taken down.