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Austria’s arbitrary and abusive behaviour in preventing Romania’s Schengen accession. How Russia…

Austria’s arbitrary and abusive behaviour in preventing Romania’s Schengen accession. How Russia gains from Vienna’s „strategic patience”

Austria announced out of the blue exactly 19 days ago, on 18 November, that it would veto Romania’s entry into Schengen, a decision which, according to G4Media, was neither discussed in the Vienna government nor communicated through diplomatic channels to Bucharest. Three arguments were used by Austria, all three false. Vienna’s last-minute change of position and the lack of any plausible explanation point to arbitrary, abusive political behaviour that is damaging not only to Romania, but to the entire European Union. And the big political winner is Russia, whether Vienna wants to admit the political effects of its decision or not.

It is essential to understand why Vienna’s behaviour is arbitrary. Austria has not so far opposed Romania’s Schengen accession, nor has it made its vote conditional on reforms or the achievement of certain benchmarks, as the Netherlands has consistently done. Austria, itself rocked by corruption scandals at the top of government over the last decade, has never asked Romania for more reforms in the judiciary, in the police, in the fight against corruption.

The example of the Netherlands is definitive: for 11 years, The Hague has demanded that Romania meet certain quantifiable standards through the CVM reports and Schengen evaluation missions, as has also been demanded by a significant part of the press and civil society in Bucharest. Once these two instruments have confirmed that Romania has reached the technical and political milestones requested by the Netherlands, the Rutte government announced a positive outlook for Romania.

We are not discussing here what these standards look like. G4Media wrote that the CVM report was rather cosmeticized by the European Commission, while the Schengen evaluation report of the same institution avoided the big problems at the customs or the Port of Constanta. The press is free to criticize any institution. The essential point is that the Netherlands accepted the European Commission’s instruments, made its own assessment and, in line with its own political behavior, decided accordingly. So, a linear conduct, easy to understand and accept.

Austria instead acts as a completely irrational political actor. In February 2022, Austria announced its support for Romania’s accession to Schengen, and then formally endorsed the Member States’ declaration on the advisability of extending the Schengen area at the Salzburg Forum Ministerial Conference in Bucharest on 16 November 2022, as Minister Lucian Bode explained at the time.

Further more: Austria had no technical representative at the two Schengen evaluation missions to Romania, one by the European Commission and one by the Netherlands. A sign that Austria had no concerns about Romania’s compliance with the technical requirements for Schengen entry.

Something happened between 16 November and 18 November in Vienna, something so important that it led to Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s position changing 180 degrees. And the Austrian authorities have failed to offer a plausible explanation.

It has to be said that there is major concern in Austrian society about illegal immigration, which has increased significantly this year. And with regional elections fast approaching and the chancellor’s party in a bad way, he needs a scapegoat. But all the data shows that Romania is not the cause of the migrant surge.

That’s why the three attempts to argue for a veto don’t stand up.

The first argument: Schengen no longer works, Austria is full of illegal migrants, so Schengen should not be expanded. In that case, why is Austria in favour of Croatia joining Schengen if the area no longer works? Why doesn’t Chancellor Nehammer say anything about Greece, the Schengen member state through which most migrants enter and then arrive in Austria?

Second argument: a significant part of the illegal migrants entering Austria would have come via Romania. The argument is false, as Frontex statistics show. The route is via Serbia, Croatia and Hungary, and Romania is not on this migrant route. In fact, Interior Minister Gerhard Karner himself admitted on Monday that the flow of migrants at Austria’s borders has dropped dramatically (from 700 daily to 200) after Serbia re-imposed visas for Tunisia. The explanation is clear: a large proportion of migrants (mainly from India and Tunisia) used to fly to Belgrade, which does not ask for visas, and then seek asylum in Austria via Hungary.

The third argument, used in discussions at technician level: a significant number of illegal migrants arriving in Austria would have had in their mobile phones log-in data to Romanian GSM networks, a sign that they had passed through Romania. According to G4Media, the argument was quickly dismissed, as these were migrants caught by Romanian police officers themselves.

So Austria’s pseudo-arguments do not stand up. Their unjustified nature is obvious. Romania is not the main cause of the increase in illegal migrants in Austria. The causes must be sought either in Greece, at the gateway to Schengen, or in Serbia and Hungary, the countries pushing these migrants to Vienna. Except that the head of the Austrian government, Karl Nehammer, has a special political partnership with pro-Russian authoritarian leaders Alexandar Vucic and Viktor Orban.

The unsustainable argument was coupled with unacceptable personal behaviour by some Austrian officials, according to G4Media. Romanian officials who tried to explain Bucharest’s position in Vienna with arguments were treated in contempt of diplomatic custom.

Austria’s impossible-to-explain veto is not only damaging to Romania, but to the whole European Union. At a time when the EU needs to show unity in a tense regional context, when the EU needs to demonstrate that it is a structure based on transparent rules and principles that make it attractive to states such as Ukraine or Moldova, Austria’s deviant political behavior threatens precisely these values.

In fact, Austria is now acting just like Viktor Orban’s autocratic Hungary, which used its veto to block €18 billion in EU aid for Ukraine. In both cases, Vienna and Budapest are acting unfriendly, unjustifiably, in obvious bad faith.

Is this a decision taken under Russian influence or out of fear of Russia, as some Romanian politicians are already claiming, given Moscow’s long-standing influence over Vienna? There is no evidence to support this scenario. But given the lack of any plausible argument, such explanations are to be expected.

But we should note one thing: whether Austria likes it or not, Russia is profiting from the lack of solidarity and solidity in the EU, just as it is profiting from Viktor Orban’s repeated blockades.

What’s to be done? Romania and the EU must now force a final vote at the JHA Council on 8-9 December, against Austria’s desire to take the issue off the agenda. Austria must be left alone among the 27 EU member states. If they maintain their veto for Romania, the authorities in Vienna must publicly explain their solitary position.

And perhaps this is the time for a real discussion in the EU about Austria’s famous strategic patience, a euphemism for the duplicitous policy that allows it to enjoy the benefits of both the EU and its close relationship with Russia. In times of war, even a country like Austria has to choose sides. Romania did, as weak, corrupt and unreformed as it is. And it chose the right side.

Note: For those who wonder if the position of G4Media, which questioned the verifiability of the justice reforms and argued that the current power does not deserve such an award, has changed, the answer is that it has not. What I have described above is a flawed political mechanism, which as journalists we are duty bound to expose. It is not inconsistent for the press, civil society, to criticize, to question institutional decisions when we consider them incorrect. This is what we did when we considered that the justice reforms of the PSD-PNL-UDMR coalition are mimicked, that the European Commission’s CVM report is too mild or that the same Commission’s report on Schengen did not take into account serious problems in Romanian customs. But these reports create an institutional reality, which the press can only criticize, without being able to change it. And political decisions are made on the basis of mechanisms and institutional reality, as the Netherlands did. What Austria is doing is ignoring institutional reality, which is the reason for this article.

Traducere (Ovidiu Harfas)

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