A diplomatic dispute is brewing between Bucharest and Athens after more than 80 Romanian tourists were denied access to Greece last week despite apparently fulfilling the conditions to enter the 15-nation Schengen zone without a visa. The EU last month (7 December) decided to grant Romanians visa-free access to Schengen states from 1 January, provided they have sufficient funds and proper travel and insurance documents. Romania's government has now officially asked for clarification on why Greek border police demanded that Romanian tourists meet extra conditions to be allowed to enter Greece.
Prague, 8 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romania's Foreign Ministry yesterday (7 January) asked Greece's charg d'affairs in Bucharest for clarification after more than 80 Romanian tourists were refused access to Greece over the weekend, even though they apparently met the necessary conditions for visa-free travel to the Schengen zone.
Romanian officials say Greek border police at the Promachonas border crossing in northern Greece prevented some of the tourists from entering Greece because they could not produce documents with proof that accommodation during their sojourn in Greece had been paid in advance.
The Romanian side says proof of prepaid accommodation was not among the conditions imposed by the European Commission last month (7 December) when it decided to drop visa restrictions for Romanians from 1 January.
Romania was the last of the 12 EU candidate countries to have travel restrictions lifted for the 15 states that are members of the Schengen agreement -- that is, all of the EU states except Ireland and the United Kingdom, plus non-EU members Norway and Iceland.
In order to be able to travel to the Schengen states, Romanians must prove that they have valid credit cards or funds of up to almost $100 per day, while for journeys longer than five days a total of almost $500 is sufficient. Medical insurance, a return ticket in case they travel by plane or train, or international car insurance for the duration of the trip are also mandatory.
However, beside these requirements, every Schengen member state can ask for supplementary conditions to be fulfilled to allow visa-free access on its territory for non-EU citizens.
Romanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Victor Micula told RFE/RL that Romania prior to 1 January asked all Schengen states, including Greece, to specify any such conditions.
"We received answers from all [Schengen] countries -- including Greece -- and proof of accommodation during the sojourn in Greece was not mentioned."
In a much-publicized action, Romanian diplomats in the Schengen states were present at some border crossings of these states in the days after 1 January to observe whether Romanian citizens were being granted access without visas.
Romania's Foreign Ministry said that fears for a potential exodus of Romanians to richer Western countries were unfounded. According to data gathered by Romanian diplomats in Schengen countries, out of some 50,000 Romanians who have arrived at the borders of these states since the beginning of the year, only about 100 have so far been refused entry.
The largest lot -- more than 80 people -- was stopped by Greek border police at the Promachonas border crossing, which denied Romanians without prepaid accommodation access to Greek territory, despite the presence of Romanian consular officials.
Bucharest, which went to great lengths last year to curb illegal immigration and to meet EU criteria for having the visa regime lifted, was quick to ask for an official explanation.
Romania's Foreign Ministry yesterday summoned Greece's charge d'affairs, Polydore Kokonas, for clarification. Kokonas said the Greek side will inform Bucharest about its reasons for preventing Romanian tourists from entering Greece. He did not give a timetable.
Greek officials in Bucharest today said the issue is being blown out of proportion, but they reaffirmed Athens' right to impose extra requirements for non-EU citizens.
Alexis Georgiades, a spokesman for the Greek Embassy in Bucharest, told RFE/RL that even before 1 January, prepaid accommodation had been a condition to obtain a visa at the Greek consulate in Bucharest. Georgiades said Greece did not have to specifically inform Romania about this requirement since it had been mandatory before.
"I'm not aware of the fact that Greece had to inform the Romanian Foreign Ministry with an extra note or something like that. I know that the same criteria that used to apply before apply now. The difference is that the jurisdiction was transferred from the consulate here to the [Greek] Ministry of Public Order, so instead of getting visas or controls here in the consulate, they are subject to controls in Greece."
But Silviu Ionescu, Romania's consul to Thessaloniki, who was present at the Promachonas border crossing in the first days of January, told RFE/RL that Greece introduced yet another restriction after 1 January, refusing entry to Romanians who had invitations from Greek citizens who were not immediate family members.
Ionescu, however, says he has signals that this restriction will soon be dropped. "It seems that an improvement in the treatment for Romanians will come in the immediate future. That means Romanians will be able to come to Greece with an invitation from friends or relatives who are not immediate family."
Romania remains the poorest of all 12 EU candidate countries and is regarded as last in line for admission to the 15-nation bloc.
But the Social Democrat government led by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase last year hailed the lifting of visa restrictions as a major success and an indication that Romania is finally getting closer to Europe.
In an indication that Bucharest is treating the visa matter seriously, Romania's Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana today held a telephone conversation with his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou.
A Romanian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFE/RL that Papandreou said the Greek government is ready to clarify the situation and treat Romanian citizens in a way similar to all other Schengen states.
The source also said that a high-level Romanian delegation -- including Deputy Foreign Minister Mihnea Motoc and border police chief General Aurel Neagu -- is also scheduled to go to Athens for consultations in the next few days.