Now the EU is Balkanizing the Balkans

SOFIA: Residents of the sleepy town of Schengen, near Luxembourg’s border with France and Germany, would marvel at the hatred in which their hometown is held across Eastern Europe. For the freedom of movement without passport controls that the Schengen agreements brought within much of the EU was paid for at the price of ridiculously complicated procedures for entry by other Europeans.

The worst aspect of all is the so-called “Schengen black list”. Citizens from European countries outside the Schengen zone face Alice in Wonderland justice; they must prove that they are not criminals or job-poachers if they are to secure a Schengen visa. But everyone knows that it is almost impossible to disprove a negative. “Schengen” Europeans shrug nonchalantly; they seem to think that everyone beyond the Schengen zone is part of some low post-Soviet breed, always up to no good.

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In recent weeks angry Bulgarians protested against the Schengen visa process. These demonstrations were more passionate even than those that took place during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. Most Bulgarian rage is targeted at Europe. Some of it, however, is directed against neighboring Romania because the forthcoming meeting of the EU Council of Justice & Interior to decide when and whether to lift the Schengen restrictions on both countries, is pitting Bulgaria against Romania in a classic case of divide and misrule.

Romania and Bulgaria were blacklisted at Schengen’s inception. When invited to begin negotiations to join the EU, both were told what must be done to get off the list: tighten border and custom controls, stiffen penalties against drug traffikers and illegal immigrants, and make identification papers impossible to forge.

By everyone’s reckoning, Bulgaria complied and now expects the EU to keep its part of the bargain. In the last year alone, indeed, Bulgaria’s border police confiscated over 1000 kilograms of illegal narcotics, almost as much as confiscated in all Europe combined. This fact inspired the US ambassador to Sofia - no slouch in condemning narcotics smugglers - to call Bulgaria “one of America's most reliable partners” in the drug war.

As to Romania, EU-members are divided. Germany appears unconvinced that Romania is ready for Schengen membership and suggests that Romania and Bulgaria be looked at separately, on their own merits. Everyone knows, of course, that this means that the Germans want to keep the Romanians waiting at the EU gate as long as possible.

France, among others, is concerned about antagonizing Romanians, perhaps the only people in Eastern Europe who take their diplomatic cues from Paris. French diplomats (with assenting nods, it appears, from the Greeks and Dutch) suggest that where Schengen is concerned Romania and Bulgaria are Siamese twins. So now Bulgarians are beginning to blame Romanians for keeping them out in the cold.

Assen Agov, head of our parliament’s foreign policy committee, responded to fears that Bulgaria must wait until Romania catches up by saying that, if EU visa restrictions do not fall in a timely way, Bulgaria should withdraw from the Stability Pact for the Balkans, perhaps capsizing it. The argument here is that the Stability Pact has grouped Bulgaria with fragile Balkan democracies like Macedonia and Croatia, which may never see the Euro-light, at least not soon. Bulgarians, it seems, are guilty by mere geographical association with the Balkan Wars.

Bulgaria’s national co-ordinator for the Stability Pact resigned to protest Agov’s rant, and the government has tried to distance itself even more. But because the opposition is attacking our reforming government for its supposed cravenness before the EU, several ministers have nonetheless echoed Agov. So, too, many members of the governing majority during a special debate in parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Petr Zhotev was caught by news cameras saying that “obviously, we are physically unacceptable for Europe. They don't want us there.”

More than national pride and economics are wounded by the Schengen restrictions. For the EU’s handling - so far - of this relatively minor issue shows that the road to EU membership appears to be paved with hypocritical intentions. Are friendship and prejudice to rule in the EU’s membership determinations, or will objective facts determine things? For example: Latvia and Lithuania saw their visas vanish without a fuss because their neighbors lobby hard for them. In the words of the Danish foreign minister, “bringing the Balts into the EU is Denmark’s foreign policy priority.” Bulgaria’s nearest EU members, however, seem to yearn for the Iron Curtain.

The EU’s Justice & Interior Council is to meet on 30 November to determine the fates of Romania and Bulgaria in regard to Schengen. They must not conceive of their decision so narrowly because, in Bulgaria at least, their words and actions are beginning to twist the very meaning of what it is to be “in” Europe. If objective facts and fulfilled commitments can be deliberately ignored, Bulgarians may become convinced that the EU is only interested in promoting a Europe of the “balkanizing” kind.