The Bulgarian Gambit

Photo: AFP/Armend Nimani

The European Union and its open border regulations, which allow free travel across the continent for millions each year, have been at the center of heated political debate in recent months. This travel luxury that Europeans and visitors have come to know and love is rooted in a political agreement officially known as the Schengen zone, which includes twenty-two out of the twenty-eight EU nations.

In light of the ongoing migrant crisis, the very nature of the Schengen agreement is being challenged and has caused widespread concern for EU states. In 2014, 216,000 migrants arrived in Europe. This number has already been exceeded this year, with an influx of close to 400,000 people. Countries are anxious about these migrants’ economic impact and are threatening to block their borders. In a historically unprecedented move, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovenia all re-instated border controls this September. The migrant crisis has made many Europeans skeptical of free movement, one of the key tenets of European identity.

The main issue? European nations cannot agree on mandatory migrant quotas. One country in particular is exploiting this weakness: Bulgaria. The Balkan nation is attempting to take advantage of the refugee situation, using the migrant crisis as a bargaining chip in order to achieve its longstanding goal of joining the Schengen zone. This strategy is only feasible because other Eastern European nations, such as Croatia and Bulgaria, have steadfastly opposed European migrant quotas. Bulgaria is a poor fit for the Schengen and shouldn’t be able to exploit this weakness to bully their way in.

There are many perks of being a Schengen member, chief among which are numerous economic benefits and political prestige. Bulgaria has been trying to join the Schengen zone since it became an EU member in 2007- a seemingly natural step on the EU’s path of integration. However, it has been blocked repeatedly by Germany, Austria and the Netherlands who are wary of Bulgaria’s troubles integrating into the EU’s welfare-focused capitalist system. A welfare state is one of the foundational policies of the EU-15 group of nations, and its malfunctioning in Bulgaria presents a major bar to Schengen integration. It is this group of fifteen nations (besides Ireland and the United Kingdom) that comprise the majority of the Schengen nations. Bulgaria’s political corruption and lack of transparent institutions and elections have also hindered its entry into the Schengen.

By trying to become a Schengen nation at a time when its members are already questioning European identity, Bulgaria is adding another strain to an already fragile union. Recently, anti-European right-wing parties such as Britain’s UKIP and France’s Le Front National have grown in popularity as their British and French supporters try to distance themselves from the union. These groups believe that their national values are not reflected on a European level. Adding Bulgaria to the Schengen would give right-leaning citizens another excuse to endorse the anti-European views expressed by these nationalistic parties, presenting a further challenge to maintaining a European identity.

More importantly, if Bulgaria succeeds in using migrant quotas to obtain membership, it will become impossible for Western EU nations to force Bulgaria to conform to the broader EU ideals it agreed to when joining. Conformity is a key to ensuring a cohesive European identity, and it is for that reason that the EU has been strategically withholding Schengen membership until Bulgaria aligns itself more closely with the EU-15 nations.

It is crucial for the EU to maintain the power to align Bulgaria’s political values closer to that of the rest of the union. Decisions regarding Common Foreign Policy and the Security Area have to be made unanimously under EU law. While the EU’s general decision-making process was updated from a unanimous voting system to a qualified majority voting system under the Treaty of Lisbon, there is a strong ‘preference for unanimity’. As a result, most EU legislation is enacted only when the agreement is unanimous. These types of decisions are made significantly easier when the countries within the union share common values.

The inability of the EU to hold a successful vote on the relocation of migrants due to disagreements amongst member states demonstrates immense disorganization and a lack of political and humanitarian initiative. Furthermore, it highlights underlying issues that have been plaguing the union since its Eastern enlargement in 2004 and 2007. The mismatch in political values between Eastern and Western European nations is challenging the EU more than the bailouts of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus.

In trying to exploit the EU’s inability to find a consensus regarding migrant quotas, Bulgaria’s bid to join the Schengen highlights the need for the EU to create more social and political cohesion amongst its member states. Collaboration is desperately needed in order to enforce mandatory migrant quotas and find a long lasting solution help incoming migrants. This will only be feasible once a greater European identity is established.

Anne-Sophie Deman

Anne-Sophie Deman is studying International Relations and Mandarin Chinese at the University of British Columbia. She is from Belgium and is interested in European and Chinese affairs.

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