More than 80% of MEPs condemned the Austrian veto against Romania and Bulgaria over Schengen

An interview on the Romanian petition, recognized by an European Parliament resolution, that builds up political pressure Austria over its veto for the two countries over Schengen.

Răzvan Nicolescu is a former Romanian minister of energy and current leader of the Association for Clean Energy and Climatic Changes. His NGO is the author of a petition asking for allowing Romania and Bulgaria in the Schengen area, whose theses were supported by more than 80% of the MEPs on 12 July 2023. Vladimir Mitev asked him what the petition changes for the process of accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area, what to expect in the near future regarding the Schengen dossier and what is the right formula of Bulgarian-Romanian interaction so that they could join with success.

Congratulations for the success of your petition, which led to a resolution of the European Parliament which puts a lot of political pressure on Austria to lift its veto on Bulgaria and Romania for accession to Schengen. 

Mr. Nicolescu, you’re well-known in Romania, possibly even outside Romania. But if some people don’t know, what should they know about you as the author of this petition which led to the resolution?

My career is mainly linked to energy and climate sectors. I used to work both in public and private sector. My longest job was to be the partner in Deloitte Central Europe, coordinating energy and sustainability practices in the Central and Eastern part of Europe. In the public sector, I used to have various roles at the national and European level. I used to be a member of the Romanian government, the minister responsible for energy. I used to be a member of the Romanian permanent representation to the EU. At the European level, I used to be the chairman of the European agency dealing with the energy regulations. So I have dedicated a part of my career to the European Union.

How was the idea for this petition born? You basically play by the European rules of the game in order to do change on EU level. So how did this idea appear and what were the thresholds in its realization?

I know the European rules and procedures, being a big supporter of the European project, I want to see the European rules and the treaties applied in their letter and spirit all the time.

Romanians and Bulgarians have the right to be part of the Schengen zone. It is good for them. It is good for Europe. Probably not very good for Putin, but for sure for Europe and for both of our countries and citizens is a positive thing. There is a right – and the right should have been recognized.

After 12 years, we as members of the civil society – because three years ago I founded an NGO dealing with the energy transition and with the fight against climate change – we said that we had to do something. because there is also an environmental damage linked to this postponement. There are many trucks, cars waiting at the border controls between Romania and Bulgaria, between Bulgaria and Greece, between Hungary and Romania. And we are in the middle of a fight against the very big climate crisis. Last week was the hottest week ever in history and we have been generating pollution for nothing. We have to stop this. We have to recognize the rights of Romanians and Bulgarians to be in Schengen.

Both the petition and the resolution of the European Parliament say that Austria basically is not sincere in its respect for the rights and for other member states or citizens of other member states. There is this appeal to the European Commission both to sue Austria for its rejection of admitting Bulgaria and Romania, and also to make calculations about the damages which Bulgaria and Romania withstood as a result of staying away from Schengen area from 2011 on. What change would this resolution of the European Parliament bring to the issue of Schengen and Bulgarian Romania’s accession?

I think it is for the first time when an European institution, and we are talking here about the most democratic European institution, the European Parliament, is saying things very in a very direct and straightforward manner. For the first time they are saying: “Guys, there is a discrimination here. There is a breach of the EU treaties. We have to think that Romanians and Bulgarians should be compensated.” There is a very tough language. And I think it was the time to see such a language. I’m very happy that the most democratic institution of the European Union is saying things in a very direct way, because after 12 years, apologies for the expression, but we have to cut the bullshit.

We saw that in Romania the media widely reflected and published materials about this resolution. But we also noticed that there is some division in Romanian politics, if I’m not mistaken, with this government of Ciolacu and the opposition. And we saw that Cioloș – one of the leaders of the opposition, asked Ciolacu, if I understand correctly, if necessary, to ask for support on EU issues. So what are the reactions in Romania to this resolution and what will follow in Romanian politics?

We are part of civil society. Our initiative was supported by almost all the political parties. The petition was supported by citizens from all 2027 EU member states. So there were not only Romanians supporting the petition, but other EU citizens, too. Given that, I don’t care much about the political disputes at the national level. We should see more efficiency and effectiveness and less political fights, in my view.

More than 80% of the members of the European Parliament were in favor. So it was a massive vote in favor. There were seven members of the European Parliament from Austria who voted for the resolution. A huge support. And I think it’s a very important signal.

Even though it’s a Romanian petition, two countries are in fact suffering: Bulgaria and Romania. There have been various discussions, especially after the last vote in December on the accession to Schengen, related to that. For some time there was talk of the so-called decoupling of Bulgaria and Romania, the feeling that Bulgaria might be slower in its resolution of the issues regarding Schengen. But also there was a lot of talk about cooperation between the two countries. At this moment, what do you think is the right approach between the two countries? Is decoupling still considered a valid option in Romania or should cooperation be strengthened?

To be honest, in my view, this is a false topic. In our petition we also mentioned Bulgaria. The petition is about Romania because we are a Romanian NGO, but we mentioned Bulgaria and the resolution of the European Parliament is about both Romania and Bulgaria. It is true that I contacted some members of the European Parliament from Bulgaria kindly asking them to support the petition. However, they promised and they did not come to the hearing. That’s a reality. I was not happy with that, but it’s a fact.

It’s also true that in the last phase of the process, during the drafting of the resolution, the Bulgarians were more active. This is very good. But initially they were not interested. The same with the Bulgarian ambassador in Bucharest. I’ve been meeting the EU ambassadors on a regular basis discussing this dossier. It was impossible for me to meet the Bulgarian ambassador even though I asked for a meeting a couple of times.

As for the coordination between countries.. From my own experience, I can tell I don’t know the authorities what they do and if they coordinate. But from the civil society point of view, based on my own experience, I think there’s a lot to be improved in terms of the effectiveness of the cooperation of the two countries. That’s a fact. Then both countries deserve to be members of Schengen for both countries. It’s good to join together from the regional stability point of view, from the economic impact point of view, from all angles/

It is also true that herewe have to be very cautious with the rules and with the treaties. If we read the provisions of the Article 4.2 of the Treaty of Accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU, we should have one decision for Romania and one decision for Bulgaria. This is how the treaty was drafted. This does not mean that we cannot join or we should not join together and in my view, we should join together. But based on the spirit and on the letter of the treaty, we should have two separate decisions.

There is now a very good government in Bulgaria. I know some members of the cabinet, very professional and honest people. I really hope that the countries will join together and the most important thing is to join as fast as possible. If Bulgaria joins before Romania, as the country might do in case of the eurozone, I will be happy, not upset because more stability and more Europe in Bulgaria is better also for Romania. We are not in a competition. We are together. And what is good if it is something good for you and if you progress better in Bulgaria, there is a positive impact also on Romania and vice versa.

We have to learn a little bit from the Swedish-Finnish behavior with their accession to NATO. You know, we need to support each other and to work better than we do. We have to be pragmatic and to pay more attention to efficiency that could create a better life for our citizens.

In December, the idea of Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen was renewed, because we still don’t know what will be the final outcome of our attempts to join the proper Schengen. It is possible that we do not enter the zone soon. So what’s your opinion about such an idea of elimination the border controls between our two states?

It is an idea coming from the private sector, from the business sector. And I used to work in the business sector. I support the business sector and I’m in favor of this approach because it will decrease the pollution, it will decrease the wasted money in the transport sector, and will incentivise tourism between the countries.

I’m in favor, but I hope that both countries will join together and we don’t need to create how they are called circles in the European Union. We should join together, work better together. Let’s support each other more than we currently do because it’s a win-win for both countries.

What’s your expectation in this year to happen regarding the accession to the big Schengen.

My expectation is that we should join tomorrow. We have been waiting for 12 years and it’s too much. If it happens or not, we will see. It’s clear for me that the Russians do not want to see more Europe in the region. And I know that there are some countries that have raised nonsensical issues. In the case of Austria, I really don’t understand them at all. They are talking about migration.At the same time, there are 600 Hungarian police border officers drinking Coca Cola and wasting time and resources on the border with Romania instead of securing the border with Serbia. I don’t understand them. It’s very difficult to predict. They have a leadership with a very big ego. They have been playing in a very anti-European manner.

It’s difficult to predict. I prepare for the case that we don’t join and we have a plan.

We have a robust plan and prepare for the worst in order to get the results that we want to see. We also don’t exclude going to the streets of Brussels or Vienna and to say that they have to respect the treaties.

Can you say in short, what is the plan?

I’m going to reveal it step by step. I have no interest in publicity for this issue. I’m very interested in efficiency. But after the adoption of the resolution, I can tell you that the next step is to see the accession of Romania and Bulgaria back to the agenda of the Council, back to the agenda of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, because the vote that took place on December 8th was illegal. They did not respect the procedure. They did not take into account the environmental damage. The first of our next steps in the plan is to see the issue back on the agenda.

We have a very robust team in the organization also with a very good legal team with a very good European legal background. I also help Romanian colleagues. There is now a petition from Bulgaria that is going to be discussed in the European Parliament and we contributed a little bit to the content of the petition. It’s initiated from Bulgaria, but of course it will cover both countries. We should not give up with our hope and with our actions. I’m happy that there were Bulgarian citizens supporting our initiative. And I intend to stay close with them and to work as closely as possible with them.

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