Four years after its accession to the EU, Romania is facing its first big test: the accession to the Schengen zone. Part of the accession treaty, but conditioned by the fulfilment of clear technical criteria regarding border management and security, the accession of Romania and Bulgaria was scheduled to take place in March 2011. But, as we all know, the EU seldom functions by written Treaty rules only. Instead, it is all about a perpetual horse-trading, formal and informal negotiations and- not to be neglected- political games. The old Member States know this game all too well and naturally use it to their advantage. The new Member States (and I cant help wondering how much longer we will be calling them “new”, after 7 and respectively 4 years from accession) are still learning. And like in every learning process, some pupils are learning quicker than others.
Unfortunately Romania proves to be one of the slow learners and the way it is handling the Schengen accession issue is a very good illustration. After France and Germany made it clear that they would rather see Romania’s and Bulgaria’s accession postponed to a later date when the two countries will be better prepared, bringing as the strongest argument their still very corrupt justice system, Romania decided to take a strong position. That would be all perfectly justifiable, especially given the fact that technically, it is ready to join the Schengen area, if only Romanian politicians had benefited from the socialisation process in the last four years and had learned how to properly use the rules of the game in their favour. Instead, the messages Romania has been sending in the last days come across as desperate childish attempts to threaten the EU with blocking ongoing processes such as Croatia’s accession (on the pretext that any future Member States should also have a Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), like Romania and Bulgaria do) and the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty amendment allowing for the new 18 MEPs to take their seats in the European Parliament. What Romania is naively trying to achieve with this is to “hurt” France and Germany (although it is Spain that benefits the most from the additional MEPs), but such statements and, even worse, actions fit much better in a kindergarten than in the EU arena.
What Romania is proving in the last days is that:
- it has not learned anything in the last four years about how the EU really functions, what are the main institutional players, what is the balance of power and how can one best influence the decision-making process; and here I mostly refer to the informal mechanisms, the things one learns by doing, the product of the so called “socialisation process”, although I still have doubts about how clear the formal mechanisms are to Romanian politicians, and the latest developments are only reinforcing these doubts;
- it lacks a coherent strategy to reach the goal of Schengen accession; after the EU accession process was completed, the various political forces in Romania have not been able to work together to create a constructive position for Romania to assume at the EU level; instead, contradictory messages from Romanian officials kept reaching Brussels, each one defending its domestic political position, without even realising the harm they do to Romania’s image and interest. In a sense, one can say that all these inconsistencies and the lack of a clear official stance fueled the arguments against the March 2011 accession. Romania has thus shot itself in the foot, thanks to the messy internal political scene but also to the ignorance (and lack of interest) regarding the functioning of the EU and the role Romania can and should be playing in it;
- its officials lack tact and diplomatic skills; not that this is any news, but this situations proves once more the inability of Romanian politicians and diplomats to, first of all, prevent such incidents from occurring and, secondly, once they’ve occurred, to try to suggest reasonable solutions or at the very least (and I am really lowering my expectations here!) refrain from making ridiculous statements. Not only was it bad enough that the Foreign Minister said that Romania can, and probably should, unilaterally withdraw from the CVM, President Basescu suggested yesterday, while assuming his responsibility for the possible postponing of Schengen accession, that in case Romania is not offered a clear and definite deadline to join Schengen, the funds that were meant to be used for securing the borders should be used for other purposes, such as helping SMEs. No comment.
While, on the one hand, it does not seem fair that new conditions are added while the process is ongoing (the criteria are, after all, just of a technical nature, although, in principle, one can easily link corruption with border security), Romania should have been prepared for such a situation and should have come up with a lobbying strategy for the major EU capitals instead of the lame attempts to blackmail the big Member States with issues that can, at best, only backfire and hurt the country’s image in the EU. Unfortunately, this is just an example of Romania’s negotiation “skills” (or lack thereof) in the EU arena; if this trend continues, Romania can forget about ever exerting any influence (despite its size) in the decision-making process. The first lesson it needs to learn is how to use the power of informal mechanisms in its favour instead of falling victim to it, like in the Schengen accession story.
Update 7/1/2011: According to EUobserver, Romania’s president Basescu announced that Romania would not take any of the proposed retaliatory measures (see above) because they could “backfire against Romania”. But Basescu also complained about the lack of solidarity: “It was overnight and without a warning. I would have expected that one of my colleagues in the Council – either Mr Sarkozy or Ms Merkel – to say ‘look, Mr President, we will be against it.’ But they didn’t and you know that normally in the Council there is talk about solidarity.” Be that as it may, early warning is also the task of the Romanian diplomats in Brussels…