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Wider Europe Briefing: Could Bulgaria and Romania Follow Croatia Into Schengen? And The Dilemma Of Free Roaming For Ukraine

There are fears, especially in Sofia and Bucharest, that if Bulgaria and Romania don't join together with Croatia in a "package deal," the momentum will be gone and they might not join anytime soon.
There are fears, especially in Sofia and Bucharest, that if Bulgaria and Romania don't join together with Croatia in a "package deal," the momentum will be gone and they might not join anytime soon.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's new newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: whether Bulgaria and Romania could join Croatia in becoming members of the EU's Schengen zone on January 1; and whether Ukraine will be able to join the EU's mobile "roam like home" program.

BRIEF #1: Croatia Is Set For Schengen Entry, But What About Bulgaria And Romania?

What You Need To Know: It is more or less a done deal that Croatia will join the passport-free Schengen Area on January 1, 2023. On December 9, EU interior ministers will give a thumbs-up after noting that Zagreb has fulfilled all of the criteria, or the "Schengen acquis," as it is called in Brussels.

That includes, for example, ensuring the border police are up to scratch and that there is judicial cooperation between Zagreb and other Schengen members.

The last potential holdout, the Netherlands, has indicated in Brussels that it foresees no problems and is satisfied with Croatia's work in preventing "pushbacks" at what will become the EU's new external border. (Pushbacks are when countries force migrants back over a border they have just crossed, normally without considering whether they are genuine asylum seekers or not.)

The Dutch, however, still have a key role to play when it comes to the other potentially big decision that could be taken by the very same ministers on December 9: whether Bulgaria and Romania should also join Croatia in becoming members of Schengen.

The Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, is keen to see all three countries join together, as are most other member states.

The Hague, though, is still reluctant.

Experts from various EU countries will meet in Brussels on November 16 to try to come up with a compromise ahead of the pre-holiday season crunch talks.

Deep Background: Many thought the Dutch had perhaps mellowed since the last national elections in March 2021, which produced a more EU-friendly government. But its parliament is still leaning right and is active on home affairs and migration issues.

Recently, the parliament adopted a resolution urging the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to veto Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen bids until further investigations are conducted -- highlighting the continued prevalence of corruption and organized crime in the two countries.

What The Hague is angling for are new reports by the European Commission under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Under this procedure, launched in 2007, Brussels has on an annual basis evaluated progress made by Bucharest and Sofia on judicial reforms, anti-corruption measures, and money laundering.

An official with knowledge on the matter but who wished to remain anonymous told me he could "neither confirm nor deny" that a fresh report on Romania was imminent. However, the commission remains adamant that Bulgaria, at least, was finished with the CVM when the last country report was issued back in 2019.

Drilling Down

  • The European Commission tried to allay fears by organizing a voluntary fact-finding mission to Bulgaria and Romania in early October, with the participation of experts from 17 EU member states. In the final report, seen by RFE/RL, it stated that the "on-site team did not identify any issues as regards the application of the latest developments of the Schengen acquis," adding that "Bulgaria and Romania continue to meet the conditions necessary to apply all relevant parts of the Schengen acquis in full." The Netherlands, which didn't participate in the expert evaluation, dismissed the findings, claiming the report wasn't broad enough.
  • While the Netherlands appears isolated at first glance, France is another moderate skeptic, although not as outspoken as the Dutch. One anonymous EU official I spoke to suggested Paris is more concerned with selling French military equipment to Bulgaria and Romania than pressuring them over Schengen.
  • One idea that has been floated as a possible compromise is for Croatia to join on January 1 and then Bulgaria and Romania might come aboard a bit later, possibly on March 1. This would give the Netherlands and the European Commission a bit more time to assess the situation and produce additional reports, if necessary. There are fears, however, especially in Sofia and Bucharest, that if Bulgaria and Romania don't join together with Croatia in a "package deal," the momentum will be gone and they might not join anytime soon.

BRIEF #2: Ukraine And The Free Roaming Dilemma

What You Need To Know: There were a few raised eyebrows when the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in her annual state of the European Union speech in September, confidently announced that "we will bring Ukraine into our European free roaming area."

The EU's "roam like home" program -- launched in 2017 and which also covers non-EU states Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway -- meant that mobile phone roaming charges for citizens traveling across member nations were eliminated.

One of the more popular EU decisions, it was recently prolonged by another decade. But it has never been tested with other third countries. A deal, struck with EU mobile operators, currently allows Ukrainian refugees in the EU to benefit from roaming free or at very low costs while using their Ukrainian mobile phones.

This deal, extended in early October for another three months, could be replaced by bringing the entire country under the "roam like home" program. That, though, is easier said than done.

Deep Background: There are essentially two ways of achieving the "roam like home" provision. One is to negotiate directly with operators to lower or remove tariffs altogether. This is what was done among the six non-EU Western Balkan countries when all roaming tariffs were removed last summer. And that is likely to be the way to go when removing tariffs between Kyiv and the EU in the future.

But for Ukraine there is a catch. In the EU-Ukraine association agreement, which fully entered into force in 2017, there is an internal market treatment clause to bring the country into the EU roaming area if Kyiv aligns itself with the relevant EU legislation and does not become an EU member state. This is a unique mechanism not present in similar EU association agreements with Georgia, Moldova, or the countries of the Western Balkans.

Drilling Down

  • The truth is the EU hasn't moved much since Von der Leyen's speech. And it is the European Commission that should make that first step by updating an annex within the roaming regulations and by agreeing on what legislative reforms are needed. This sounds very technical and legalistic -- and it's probably exactly why nothing has yet been done. Offering a third party preferential access to the EU's lucrative single market is a sensitive issue, indeed. It's even more sensitive after Brexit, as the United Kingdom is looking closely at other non-EU countries and the deals they strike with Brussels. Generally, London would prefer not to be bound by EU rules or the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ).
  • The European Commission must tread carefully to make everything legally sound. That means making sure the ECJ has some jurisprudence in the matter in order to set a legal precedent and make sure EU laws are being followed. No one knows how quickly this can move, but once it does, the ball is in Ukraine's court. Kyiv will have to introduce the EU roaming legislation and, most likely, also pass other bigger EU telecom laws. EU officials estimate this whole process could take up to two years to complete. Considering the broad political and public support among many Ukrainians to move closer to the EU, it might well be a little speedier than that. So it's fairly probable Ukraine will get "roam like home" in the future, though some sort of transition period first is likely. In reality, we're still talking years, at best.
  • Ukraine is also currently fighting an all-out war against Russia. Can legislation truly be implemented? And what territory will be covered? Ukrainian mobile operators have complained that they have lost many transmitters due to the fighting. For example, Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, is now completely covered by the Russian telecom network. It would take both time and investment to reverse that -- and that's assuming that Russia would even play ball.
  • Another thing to consider is that not everyone would be happy. Ukrainian mobile operators will lose out financially, just like EU operators did when "roam like home" was first introduced. And the operators will likely compensate for their losses by raising charges for consumers in other areas. Ultimately, though, Ukraine might calculate that closer ties with Brussels and the benefits to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians scattered across the EU are worth more than the domestic operators' objections. To get what it wants, the Ukrainian government might have to play hardball and threaten to nationalize the mobile operators if they don't get onboard.

Looking Ahead

EU foreign ministers are meeting on November 14 in Brussels with a packed agenda, although expect no decisions this week. They kick off with a breakfast with Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The bloc is currently preparing more sanctions on the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, including aligning measures for Minsk with those already imposed on Russia.

The foreign minister of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, will also address his EU counterparts via video link as the bloc takes the formal decision on whether to launch its military mission for Ukraine. Expect the discussion on imposing a Russian oil cap to also feature high on the agenda.

All eyes will be on Hungary this week. On November 18, the bloc's European affairs ministers will discuss Budapest's respect (or lack of it) for EU values in the General Affairs Council. November 19 is the deadline for Budapest to reply to the 17 concerns the European Commission raised about the country's rule of law. Satisfying Brussels would unlock 7.5 billion euros ($7.8 billion) of suspended EU funds.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.