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June 9, 2011 5:35 pm
Romania and Bulgaria will not join the European Union’s passport-free Schengen area until mid-2012 at the earliest, the bloc’s interior ministers decided on Thursday.
The EU’s two newest members had hoped to gain a green light to lift their borders with the rest of the EU in the first half of this year. But ongoing concerns about corruption have prompted existing Schengen members – who must approve new entrants unanimously – to delay their entry by at least 12 months.
Romania and Bulgaria have fulfilled the technical requirements to join the border-free area, set up in 1995, which prompted the European Parliament to overwhelmingly endorse their accession in a vote on Wednesday.
But national governments opted to base the decision to enlarge Schengen on wider criteria encompassing judicial reform and the fight against corruption.
“Our concern is that even if they have reached technical standards on managing borders, corruption in those countries could weaken those borders,” said Claude Guéant, French interior minister.
He said a decision on whether to welcome Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen would not be made before the 2012 iteration of an annual report on compliance with EU rules, due in July.
France and Germany, along with many northern European countries, had previously indicated their reluctance to expand the EU’s external borders to include Bulgaria and Romania.
The discussion came as ministers reviewed how to reform the Schengen agreement, with a view to making it easier to reimpose border controls in exceptional circumstances.
Migration has rocketed up the European political agenda since the start of the year, when migrants from north Africa fleeing political turmoil started landing on its shores.
National leaders meeting in Brussels on June 23 will lay out new policies relating to migration and asylum, as well as new guidelines on free travel within the EU.
Fears about the future of Schengen were initially raised by France, which briefly closed its border with Italy in April following the crossing of thousands of Tunisian migrants which had landed on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.
They were exacerbated weeks later when Denmark unveiled plans to bolster its customs checks at borders, prompting an investigation by the European Commission in Brussels.
Controversy around the plan resurfaced ahead of a parliamentary vote on Friday to approve the measure.
Lars Barfoed, Danish justice minister, sought to reassure his European counterparts that the new provisions were in no way intended to weaken free travel within the EU.
“We are confident that what we have agreed is not in conflict with the Schengen agreement,” he said.
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