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  • Borislav Ivanov

As Croatia enters Schengen, Bulgaria and Romania’s fate is uncertain.

Croatia is almost certain to join the passport-free Schengen Area on January 1, 2023. On December 9, EU interior ministers will give Zagreb the thumbs up after determining that it has met all of the conditions, or the "Schengen acquis," as it is known in Brussels.

This means, for example, ensuring that border police are properly trained and that judicial cooperation exists between Zagreb and other Schengen countries.

The Netherlands, the final possible holdout, has said in Brussels that it sees no concerns and is pleased with Croatia's efforts to avoid "pushbacks" at what would become the EU's new external border. (A pushback occurs when a country forces migrants back over a border they have recently crossed, often without regard for whether they are legitimate asylum seekers or not.)

The Dutch, on the other hand, still have a significant role to play in another potentially major decision that the same ministers might make on December 9: whether Bulgaria and Romania should join Croatia in becoming Schengen members.

The Czech Republic, which now holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, as well as the majority of other member states, are eager to see all three nations join forces.

The Hague, on the other hand, remains hesitant.

Experts from several EU member states will convene in Brussels on November 16 to attempt to reach an agreement ahead of the pre-holiday season crunch negotiations.

Deep Background: Many people believed that the Dutch had softened after the previous national elections in March 2021, which resulted in a more EU-friendly government. However, its parliament remains conservative and engaged in domestic and international affairs.

The parliament recently passed a resolution encouraging Prime Minister Mark Rutte's administration to deny Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen applications until more investigations are performed, stressing the two countries' persistent prevalence of corruption and organized crime.

The Hague is hoping for additional findings from the European Commission under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Since its inception in 2007, Brussels has examined Bucharest and Sofia's progress on judicial reforms, anti-corruption measures, and money laundering on an annual basis.

An official with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity shared that he could "neither confirm nor deny" that a new report on Romania was on the way. The commission, on the other hand, is sure that Bulgaria, at the very least, was completed with the CVM when the last country report was produced in 2019.

The European Commission attempted to alleviate concerns by arranging a voluntary fact-finding expedition to Bulgaria and Romania in early October, with specialists from 17 EU member states participating. According to the final report, which was obtained by TBN, the "on-site team did not identify any issues regarding the application of the latest developments of the Schengen acquis," and that "Bulgaria and Romania continue to meet the conditions necessary to apply all relevant parts of the Schengen acquis in full." The Netherlands, which did not take part in the expert study, criticized the results, stating that the report was too narrow.

While the Netherlands seems to be alone at first look, France is also a moderate sceptic but not as vocal as the Dutch. According to an unnamed EU official, Paris is more interested in selling French military equipment to Bulgaria and Romania than with putting pressure on them over Schengen.

One potential compromise is for Croatia to join on January 1, with Bulgaria and Romania joining later, probably on March 1. This would allow the Netherlands and the European Commission more time to analyze the issue and, if required, publish new reports. However, there are concerns, particularly in Sofia and Bucharest, that if Bulgaria and Romania do not join Croatia in a "package deal," the impetus will be lost and they will not join anytime soon.

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