Dutch, Finns block Europe free-travel area expansion
The expansion of Europe's passport-free travel area hit a road block on Thursday, with Bulgarian and Romanian dreams of joining the club rejected by nations critical of their crime-fighting records.
Finland and the Netherlands refused at a meeting of EU interior ministers to drop their opposition to the bids by the two Balkan nations to join the Schengen zone, citing poor progress against corruption and organised crime.
"Two member states today made it impossible for us to make a decision on Schengen enlargement," Polish Interior Minister Jerzy Miller lamented after the talks.
"This leads me to a rather sad conclusion regarding mutual trust among the member states," Miller added, saying Bulgaria and Romania were promised a place in Schengen when they joined the European Union in 2007.
"Today the promise has been broken," he said, adding that Romania and Bulgaria had made "huge progress."
But the Dutch and Finnish governments disagreed.
"What we wanted to avoid was to take a decision today that we would later regret," said Dutch Immigration Minister Gerd Leers.
"Imagine you have a door with eight of the best locks in the world. But before that door is standing someone who lets everybody in -- then you have a problem," he said.
Finnish Interior Minister Paeivi Raesaenen said: "We don't have complete confidence that these countries will be able to secure outer EU borders because of corruption, among other issues."
Poland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, sought to convince EU peers to accept a two-step solution that would allow Romanian and Bulgarian air and sea borders to open by October 31, while a date on opening land borders would be put off to next year.
All nations backed the compromise except for the Dutch and Finnish ministers, diplomats said.
No vote was taken, however, sending a decision to an EU summit in October, with Poland hoping to change Finnish and Dutch minds by then.
Schengen, an area that stretches from Portugal to Poland and through which road, rail and even air travellers need only basic identity papers to move freely, has come under increasing strain this year.
Denmark reintroduced limited customs controls recently, after a spat at the French-Italian border concerning Tunisians crossing by sea into Italy and then receiving papers allowing them to wander across the European mainland.
But the latest row concerns the Dutch and Finnish resistance to the former Communist-bloc states in the east.
After the Dutch indicated their likely stance in advance of Thursday's talks, Romanian border authorities this week blocked Dutch trucks carrying tulips from the Netherlands -- officially over a bacteria scare.
Romanian daily Adevarul linked the move to the Schengen dispute, calling it the "war of the flowers."
Angered at being locked out, Romanian President Traian Basescu urged the Dutch not to "sacrifice" European integration "to satisfy extremists."
The Dutch centre-right government rules with the backing of Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party (PVV). Finland's conservative government also faces strong support from the far-right True Finns.
A cornerstone of EU integration, Schengen is already facing a shake-up due to concerns over illegal migration.
At its southeastern edge, Greece is struggling to police its border with Turkey and faces allegations that migrants live in inhumane conditions at detention centres.
Fearing an influx of illegal migrants in the wake of the Arab Spring, several states sought more leeway to restore border controls on a temporary basis.
EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem riled France, Germany and Spain with a proposal seeking to force states to ask permission from Brussels and other EU states to reinstate even temporary internal borders.
© 2011 AFP