This coming Wednesday, the Bulgarian minister of the Interior Tsvetanov will be making a presentation and answering questions for the Standing Committee for Immigration, Integration and Asylum of the Dutch Parliament. It is a closed hearing, the main topic is, however, not difficult to guess when one reads that Tsvetanov’s visit is the result of request from the Bulgarian ambassador to the Netherlands. It is the thorny issue of Bulgaria’s (and Romania’s) membership in the Schengen area again and clearly the Bulgarian government feels it has a better chance of overcoming Dutch objections now that the cooperation with the PVV has come to an end. The Dutch (and possibly French) objections are almost the last obstacle to this membership, even if the Bulgarian and Romanian preparations have been overshadowed by problems with law enforcement and organized crime. Technically speaking, Bulgarian airports are ready for at least the first stage of joining Schengen and a lot of other costly preparations have been completed and may yet have a purpose, although if we see the Schengen issue as a result of mistrust from the old member states that reflects their own deep anxiety about the whole Schengen project, as in this very interesting blog post at LSE’s EUROPP blog suggests, it may still not work. As the author of the post Reuben Zaiotti, who also maintains a Schengen related blog, has aptly put it, “Seen in this light, the Romania and Bulgaria affair is not just a cruel rite of passage, in which the two countries are enduring series of humiliating tests in order to become ‘proper’ members of the club, but also a sort of cathartic process in which current Schengen members, by vocally expressing their misgivings about the candidates, yet not rejecting their plight outright, assuage their fears and are persuaded to accept the new round of club’s expansion.”
In more practical policy terms, the question is, whether, the Bulgarian government is prepared, were it to succeed joining Schengen, for having an open border with Greece, where the crisis has brought additional challenges in terms of border control and asylum seekers. EU observer reports on the Commission’s first annual report on the Schengen area and the warnings from the EU’s border agency Frontex that the crisis makes it more difficult for Greece to cope with securing the land border with Turkey and to offer minimum conditions for asylum seekers that make it through. The Bulgarian government may find itself suddenly at the other side of the Schengen debate where member states look for means to re-introduce border checks in exceptional conditions. The Greek asylum policy will be evaluated by a Commission team in May, but we can already assume that even with the best will in the world, Greek administrative capacity cannot have increased with the crisis. Perhaps Bulgarian and Romanian policy makers should consider this prospect more carefully, although it is clear that there are no immediate remedies. This brings us to the larger debate whether the EU’s common policies leave the member states what Dani Rodrik calls sufficient domestic regulatory policy space to cope with the challenges of globalisation. Recent proposals to institutionalise temporary reimposition of border controls from Denmark, among others, may reflect such problems. The mixture between mistrust and anxiety on the part of the older member states, anti-immigrant sentiment from some and real policy problems in several parts of the Schengen area, however, makes it difficult to have a clear view of the problems and possible solutions.