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The Netherlands vs. Bulgaria - The Orange Lion hunting the Black Sheep of Schengen

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

By Petyo Rakov and Melle de Ridder

50 euros can get you across the Bulgarian-Turkish border, at least according to Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. Through his populist statement, he is pleasing his right-leaning voters and sabotaging ‘the black and poorest sheep of Europe’ from fulfilling its legal obligation – joining the Schengen Area. Moreover, Rutte is undermining the decision of the all-mighty European Commission. What were the ‘legitimate’ reasons behind this expected veto?

Austria and the Netherlands are Doing What?! Should We Not Focus on the World Cup?

Fierce competition and human rights violations at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar were not the only geopolitical occurrence. The discussion for enlargement of the Schengen Area through the admission of Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania remained largely unnoticed. Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, firmly welcomed the trio, who “deserve to feel fully European”. Her remarks coincide with the positive findings of the European Commission that examined the situation in October. Previous objectors like France and Germany have finally granted their support. This left the Netherlands and Austria as the only countries rejecting Bulgarian entrance into Schengen.

On the one hand, Austria’s surprising rejection is based on an increased influx of migrants via the Western Balkan Route into its territory. Thus, the Austrians highlighted the general dysfunctionality of the Schengen. Even though Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, considers the applicants to be part of the Western Balkan Route, only Croatia is geographically situated there, in near proximity to Austria. It is, therefore, rather ironic that Austria did not have any objections against the Croatian bid.

On the other hand, the Dutch rejection is based on concerns regarding the rule of law and its enforcement, specifically in Bulgaria: corruption is the main impediment, not border patrol. The Dutch Cabinet does not consider the European Commission’s mission comprehensive enough and remains unwilling to accept Bulgaria into Schengen.

The Netherlands acknowledges the noticeable improvements in cross-border criminality combat, however. The constructive criticism was overshadowed by the suggestion of PM Mark Rutte that illegal crossings of the Bulgarian-Turkish border are the norm. This cynical remark is not only offensive towards the respective border agencies but also inaccurate. The mandatory fee for vehicle disinfection upon entrance into Bulgaria is 3 euros; bribes probably cost a lot more.

What Exactly Was Schengen Again?

The Schengen Area guarantees free movement between the EU’s internal borders and provides a single set of rules for external border control. Joining Schengen is a legal obligation for every EU country, except Ireland. To be eligible for application, a country must guarantee adequate control of the external borders of the Schengen Area. Member States are required to use the Schengen Information System (SIS) to keep track of every single entrance into the bloc. Unanimous approval is required once a country is deemed eligible for accession to Schengen. This voting system has been rightfully criticized by some as being ineffective and stagnant.

Countries located at the periphery of Schengen experience difficulties being accepted, because their accession is manifested by an expanding external border. In the case of Bulgaria, millions of asylum seekers, predominantly Syrians, are eagerly waiting in Turkey to cross the border and have free access to the Schengen Area.

Why Does the Netherlands Want Bulgaria out of Schengen for the Time Being?

Three questions can be identified and analyzed that explain the Dutch position: Is Bulgaria able to guarantee the rule of law? Is Bulgaria capable of protecting the external borders of the Schengen, in particular the one with Türkiye? If the influx of migrants were to increase, what would the implication be for the Netherlands?

There are many arguments for and against the notion that Bulgaria is unable to combat internal corruption. On the 2021 Corruption Perception Index, Bulgaria occupied the 78th position, the lowest in the EU. That being said, an examination of the European Commission deemed their implementation of the Schengen rules sufficient. More specifically, the Commission has applauded the prioritization of the fight against cross-border crime through cooperation with Europol. However, it would be disingenuous not to mention the political instability and economic uncertainty in the country.

For the past two years, Bulgaria has held four elections. Only on one of these occasions, a government was formed. After a little over seven months, it suffered defeat via a no-confidence vote, the first one in Bulgaria’s history. That being said, the political unity of Bulgarian Members of the European Parliament was expressed through their letter to Mark Rutte. Their shared demand was to terminate the “11 years-long unprecedented and groundless blocking” of Bulgaria’s accession to Schengen.

The current caretaker government has been characterized by pro-Russian positions. The culmination occurred when Lukoil, the second-largest Russian company, was allowed to continue exporting its petrol via its refinery in Bulgaria for at least three months. Thus, the economic embargo on the import of Russian petrol is effectively bypassed. These pro-Russian actions decrease the confidence in Bulgaria, especially in the eyes of governing parties such as Mark Rutte’s liberal law and order party: the VVD.

Fortunately, the majority of Dutch parliamentarians supported Bulgarian accession into Schengen. This can be demonstrated by the refusal of the House of Representatives to pass a motion for Bulgaria not to become a member of the Schengen Area, which was introduced by members of the anti-migration populist PVV party. Interestingly, one of the two PVV petitioners has a non-Dutch origin, and the other is married to an immigrant from Hungary. The whole opposition to Bulgarian accession into Schengen is therefore symbolically undertaken in order to appeal to the right-leaning tendencies of certain domestic voters. This would suggest that populism and not rational arguments have influenced the Dutch stance on Bulgarian entrance.

The previously mentioned comment of Mark Rutte provoked a tense reaction from the Bulgarian President. In the past months, three border officers passed away while on duty. Two officers were killed when a bus with 47 migrants drove over their vehicle that was blocking its path. Moreover, another Bulgarian officer was shot dead, most likely by migrant traffickers, when his patrol was inspecting the border fence. Thus, implying that illegal immigrants can cross the border undisturbedly, simply by paying a minor fee is disrespectful and dull-witted at best. Indeed, the border agency of Bulgaria is understaffed and the border fence is in a less-than-optimal condition.

However, by joining the Schengen Area, Bulgaria could improve its patrolling capabilities through the exchange of intelligence. Hence, the argument that conditions would improve if the country is kept isolated is preposterous. Moreover, this stigmatization of ‘the black and poorest sheep of Europe’ is impeding European integration, once again highlighting the symbolic importance of Schengen membership.

Last but not least, concerns regarding the influx of migrants remain to be a continuous point of contention in the Dutch House of Representatives. The government is overwhelmed because the state is not able to accommodate the constant flow of asylum seekers. Simply put, the Netherlands is full – of people. A national housing shortage is already present, and it is severely inflating the prices of accommodation. Earlier this year, the Cabinet accepted an asylum deal to limit the number of incoming migrants.

Accordingly, partners and children are only allowed to come when their relative has a permanent residence permit and their own residence. However, the deal was recently undermined and deemed unenforceable by the court. Admitting Bulgaria into the Schengen Area will shift the external border of the EU to the doorstep of Türkiye, where as many as 3.6 million Syrian refugees reside. If the majority of them simply view Bulgaria as a transit country, then the Netherlands is among their final destinations.

So, What Now?

The Dutch rejection and its reasonings are not supported by concrete data and recommendations. In fact, it goes contrary to 25 other member states and the European Commission. This severely decreases their credibility. In theory, if the Netherlands is able to receive hard concessions regarding border security and enforcement of the rule of law from both Bulgaria and the EU, nothing is stopping them from accepting Bulgaria into the Schengen Area.

Sources: BBC, Euronews, European Commission, Open Overheid, Tweede Kamer

Written by Petyo Rakov and Melle de Ridder

December 2022

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