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A decade after talks began, is Romania any closer to joining Schengen?

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By Orlando Crowcroft
Vehicles wait in long lines to cross into Romania from Hungary at the Csanadpalota border crossing, after Hungary closed its borders to all but its own citizens in March 2020
Vehicles wait in long lines to cross into Romania from Hungary at the Csanadpalota border crossing, after Hungary closed its borders to all but its own citizens in March 2020   -   Copyright  Drone Media Studio/AP
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On March 25, 2021, the waiting times for trucks crossing borders between European Union member states was between ten and thirty minutes, with many of the crossings reporting no delay at all as hauliers plied their pan-European trade at 5 pm on a Thursday evening.

Given that all but three of the bloc’s member states are members of Schengen, which provides for borderless travel throughout the EU, the lack of delay was not unusual. But between Hungary and Romania, both EU members, waiting times were between 30 minutes and an hour.

At the Nagylak-Nadlac crossing point in western Romania, queues were already more than seven kilometres and growing, according to an interactive map which is used by hauliers.

Although Romania joined the EU in 2007, it is still not a member of Schengen, meaning that the delays at its border with Hungary on March 25 are typical - if not comparatively speedy. Delays at crossing points between the two nations typically stretch to hours, if not days.

In 2019, after a public holiday, queues between the two countries lasted for almost a week.

“Despite it being one-stop, the control exiting Romania and entering Hungary is carried out by the authorities of both countries, and sometimes each authority has a different control target, which can generate very long queues,” Radu Dinescu, president of the National Union of Romanian Hauliers, said.

Long, Dinescu told Euronews, means between 20 and 30 kilometres into Romania from the border with Hungary. Even when everything goes well, he said, at specific times during the week queues are between eight and ten kilometres, which translates to between four and ten hours waiting time for truckers. Such delays have only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The EU's Schengen ZoneEuronews

'Close to impossible'

It means that truckers find it almost impossible to respect European rules on rest periods, which require that they take a 45-minute break for every 4 hours ten minutes of driving, If they do not, and are caught out by either Romanian or Hungarian authorities, they can be fined.

“Waiting 10 hours, while moving the vehicle every 10 to 15 minutes makes it close to impossible to respect the rules,” he said.

It has been ten years since talks began over Romania, an EU member state since 2007, achieving borderless trade with its European neighbours. It shares this position with Croatia and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2013 and 2007 respectively but are yet to join Schengen. Bulgaria’s border with Greece and Croatia’s with Slovenia also see huge delays.

Outlining his priorities at a press conference last month, Romania’s new prime minister, Florin Citu, said that he hoped that Romania would join Europe’s Schengen trade zone by 2024.

The issue, according to Citu, is Romania’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report on corruption in the country, which was due to be published in 2020 but has been delayed until 2021. If it is favourable, Citu said, he expects Schengen talks to begin this year.

“There’s a discussion about the CVM report. We must correct this problem this year. We will do our best to have a favourable CVM report,” he said. “If all goes well, and we have a favourable report, we can hope to continue the Schengen accession talks.”

But while Citu’s believes that Romania’s accession to the EU’s borderless trade zone relies on the CVM report, the European Commission told Euronews that the issues are unrelated. As far as the Commission is concerned, Romania is ready to join Schengen right now.

“The Commission has been advocating for Romania's accession to Schengen ever since [...] 2011 and calls on the [European] Council to take a positive decision on the lifting of internal border controls,” a spokesperson told Euronews.

“Some have made a political link with the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. The Commission does not make such a link.”

Citu’s office has not replied to multiple requests for comment by Euronews.

Dutch umbrage

The European Council decision depends on a vote of all 27 member states. That vote has not been scheduled and the issue of Romania joining Schengen has not even been on the council’s official agenda since 2015.

It is also public knowledge that the Netherlands’ prime minister, Mark Rutte, is openly opposed to Romania joining Schengen without notable progress in the fight against corruption and the rule of law. Citu said this year that he had spoken to Rutte but not about whether he was still opposed.

“We analysed the promising prospects for cooperation between Romania and the Netherlands, focusing on strengthening economic relations and boosting political dialogue. I said that Romania is, without a doubt, fully prepared to enter the Schengen area," Citu said.

Rutte’s office did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment by Euronews.

A vote to allow a country to join Schengen needs to be unanimous, and as Rutte has not revealed his side of the conversation with Citu it is not clear that the Netherlands’ fears about corruption in Romania have been sufficiently assuaged to reverse its position.

Competition theory

But while the Dutch have cited corruption as the reason Romania has not yet joined the Schengen block, many Romanians have another theory: that the Netherlands is worried not about the rule of law, but about competition from Romania’s port at Constanta, given the domination of shipping trade in Europe by the Dutch port at Rotterdam.

Constanta, on Romania's Black Sea coast, could potentially take trade away from ports in northern Europe given its relative proximity to markets in the Middle East and Asia.

“Locally, there are rumours about political and economic interests of various EU member states to trade against their agreement to accept Romania in Schengen,” said Dinescu.

But the National Union of Romanian Hauliers president said that joining Schengen was only one of many issues that face Romania - and are not being addressed by the government. Hungary has made strides in improving its road infrastructure, he said, while Romania has not.

“This is an internal fault, no matter how much Romanian politicians would like to blame any other third parties,” he said.

“The bottom line is that Hungary has a significantly better administrative capacity and better-coordinated structures of state and it has also the capability to take strong decisions and to implement them, while Romania is rather weak from this perspective."

'Enlargement fatigue'

Despite these structural failings, he believes that if Romania was to join Schengen it would certainly improve the situation for Romanian hauliers - and not just in terms of waiting times. Not only would the journey be less stressful for drivers, but it would also encourage more foreign direct investment in the country and make the economy stronger and more competitive, he said.

But despite Citu’s optimism in his comments in February, the COVID-19 pandemic - which has re-introduced border checks at most European borders - and general antipathy towards open borders in Europe, particularly from French President Emmanuel Macron, suggests that Romania joining Schengen in the near future could be a way off, analysts say.

“Without pointing any fingers at Romania's critics, we must admit that the EU is also facing an enlargement fatigue, which doesn't only concern the admission of new member states, but also the "enlargement" of the Schengen Area and the Eurozone to include the "newer" EU member states,” Radu Magdin, a political analyst, told Euronews.

“Thus, although unbiased, technical criteria should condition the perspectives of EU member states' Schengen or Eurozone accession, there is also a need for the EU to define its strategic goals for a complicated future and look at further integration opportunities through more pragmatic lenses,” he added.

And outside of those sectors directly affected by it, such as hauliers, Magdin said, before Citu’s comments in February, “this topic has rarely been discussed in the public space in recent years.” With the closing of borders across the continent due to COVID-19 it seems a “far-reaching goal.”

“It is also less of a priority for Romanians. In the context of the pandemic, the free movement of people and goods across the EU has proven to be less resilient,” he said.

“Even if Romania would join the Schengen Area, this year or in the future, what is really important right now is that Romania takes a seat at the table of discussions on strengthening free movement across the EU.”

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