Europe divided over expanding border-free system

22nd September 2011, Comments 0 comments

European interior ministers Thursday were torn over whether to expand Europe's visa-free travel area, with Bulgarian and Romanian dreams of joining the club facing populist-driven opposition.

Bulgaria and Romania hoped to enter the Schengen area this year, but their aspirations face resistance from the Netherlands and Finland, which want the Balkan nations to improve the fight against corruption and organised crime.

"Our position is clear. We are not in favour of an accession at this moment," Dutch Immigration Minister Gerd Leers told reporters before talks with his 26 counterparts in Brussels.

He called for "irreversible" progress against corruption and crime. "Imagine you have a door with eight of the best locks of the world. But before that door is standing someone who lets everybody in, then you have a problem," he said.

The dispute over the Romanian and Bulgarian bids is the latest controversy over the 25-nation Schengen area, a cornerstone of EU integration now facing a shake-up due to concerns over illegal migration.

Angered over being locked out, Romanian President Traian Basescu this week 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.

Poland, current chair of the council of EU states, has struggled to sell a "two-step" compromise with air and sea borders opening first by October 31, while a decision on when to open land borders would be delayed to next year.

Germany and France, which had been reluctant to accept the candidacies of Bulgaria and Romania, have voiced support for the two-step solution.

But the Dutch and Finnish governments are refusing to accept even such a partial opening of borders, diplomats say. Since Schengen's enlargement requires unanimous consent, the bids are expected to fail Thursday.

With ministers unable to reach a deal, the hot-button issue will likely be kicked to a summit of EU leaders on October 17-18, the sources said.

The dispute is only the latest controversy over the future of Schengen, with EU states increasingly seeking leeway to temporarily reinstate internal border controls.

Greece has faced a barrage of criticism over its struggle to police its border with Turkey, with allegations from rights groups that migrants face inhumane conditions at detention centres.

The Arab Spring also sparked a diplomatic row within the EU, with France deploying border guards to its Italian border after Rome offered temporary visas to thousands for French-speaking Tunisian migrants.

And EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, who has warned against the rising influence of populism in Europe, has riled France, Germany and Spain with a proposal seeking to force states to ask permission from Brussels and other EU states to reinstate internal borders.

© 2011 AFP

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