SOFIA -- For years, EU institutions have assured 26 million Bulgarians and Romanians that they are ready to join a borderless Europe. And for at least as long, Dutch governments have quietly but forcefully held fast to their insistence that Sofia and Bucharest must do more to show that they can believe those assurances.
Now, as Romanian and Bulgarian hopes culminate of joining by the end of the year the 26-country Schengen area, where passports and other border controls have been abolished, a Dutch veto could deal the more junior EU members another disheartening blow and thwart a stated priority for the Czech EU Presidency, whose term ends in January.
"The conservatism that you see now really reflects that the parties of the center-right in the Netherlands were unhappy with how far [along on reforms] Romania and Bulgaria were when they entered the union" in 2007, Simon Otjes, an assistant professor at Leiden University who specializes in European and Dutch public opinion and party politics, told RFE/RL.
There are few signs of a softening in The Hague.
The Dutch parliament last month approved a motion urging Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government "not to take any irreversible steps" on the Schengen question for Romania or Bulgaria without "further investigations into border surveillance and the reduction of corruption and organized crime in both countries."
It warned that "Corruption and problems with organized crime in a Schengen country can cause serious problems in the functioning of border control in that country and thus put the security of the Netherlands and the entire Schengen area at risk."
The Dutch Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service through a spokesman that "the Dutch position on Schengen enlargement is straightforward: When the requirements are met, accession is possible."
The ministry cited implementation of the so-called Schengen acquis, which comprises the EU rules and legislation to strengthen external borders and abolish internal ones, and the conclusions of the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) that monitors members' progress on reforms like justice and crime.
"We will need to weigh all the information, also on a political level (including dialogue with parliament)," the ministry said in its statement. "This takes time. In due course we will see which steps are necessary."
European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper has said the findings of an inspection in October by experts from the commission and member states on implementation of the Schengen acquis were encouraging. "This mission confirmed that Romania and Bulgaria are more than ready to join [Schengen]," Hipper said. "The results are very positive, and no issues were found to warrant further delay."
That could provide a ray of hope ahead of a meeting next month of EU justice ministers to consider dropping border controls for Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania. (Croatia has reportedly been assured of getting green-lighted on Schengen.)
But the CVM criterion presents a bigger problem for Bulgaria in particular.
The European Commission concluded in 2019 that Sofia had made sufficient progress that the commission could discontinue its CVM reports on that country; but it also lacked the unanimity to formally exclude Bulgaria from the CVM process.
Juliana Nikolova, who helped Bulgaria negotiate its EU accession and now runs the Bulgarian-language Europe.bg portal EU policies, says the Dutch insistence on a second round of positive assessments is consistent with The Hague's position in 2019. "It can be said that this is a sign of mistrust," Nikolova told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
The Bulgarian government at the time pressured the European Commission to stop issuing CVM reports, she suggested, allowing then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's government to tout a political milestone. "[But] the great victory turned out to be a loss," Nikolova said.
Bulgaria has since been hobbled by near-constant political crisis.
'Hostage To Politics'
More recently, a scandal over a private laboratory's monopoly on phytosanitary controls at a heavily trafficked southern border crossing near Turkey and Greece cast doubt on Sofia's adherence to its stated border-inspections regime. The revelations of alleged corruption, threats to politicians, smuggling, and missing state funds in connection with the Kapitan Andreevo crossing were brought to light by officials within the recently ousted government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov.
Romania has also grappled with political instability and persistent corruption. Relations between The Hague and Bucharest have been further complicated by snags and legal disputes over a $1.6 billion deal for the possible manufacture and delivery by Dutch shipbuilder Damen of four warships for Romania's navy.
All EU members commit on accession to complying with Schengen rules, involving land, sea, and air borders, border cooperation and policing, and visa regimes. But unanimous consent is required for the expansion of the Schengen area.
Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania are three of the five EU states still outside the scheme. The others are Ireland, which maintains a so-called opt-out, and Cyprus, which the European Commission has ruled out of contention for now.
Previous resistance to Romanian and Bulgarian inclusion has seemingly melted away in the German, French, and Danish capitals. In August, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz allowed that "Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia meet all the requirements to obtain full membership" in Schengen.
Last month, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said conversations with EU leaders left him confident that the Netherlands was the only opponent of Romanian and Bulgarian entry to Schengen. He alleged that "Bulgaria and Romania are becoming hostages of domestic politics in the Netherlands, where elections are coming up."
Senate elections scheduled for March will test the popularity of Rutte's center-right government against a backdrop of significant Dutch pushback against perceived overreach by Brussels, including on climate goals and immigration.
But the Dutch have a long history of taking a tough line on the more strictly political aspects of European integration, as opposed to trade and economy or even defense.
Their suspicions toward Brussels have seemingly intensified in the past two decades as enlargement recalibrated influence and voting rights inside the bloc, and more recently as the immigration debate heated up.
Otjes cited a Dutch emphasis on the European Union as "an economic area where our companies can get a lot of benefits."
"But the elements where there is both labor migration and also free migration in Schengen, particularly from Eastern Europe -- that is seen less as a positive benefit for the Netherlands, in particular where it comes to labor migration," he said.
Otjes noted the lingering effects of a Dutch benefits scandal from a decade ago that became known as the "Bulgarian fraud." A 2013 documentary film showed Bulgarian nationals bragging about swindling the Netherlands out of bogus childcare, housing, and other benefits that were later estimated at around $120 million.
The episode dealt a major blow to the Dutch government and raised tensions between Bulgarian migrants and Dutch nationals protective of their generous welfare state just as other EU states were about to allow unlimited Bulgarian and Romanian immigration.
It also reinforced perceptions among Dutch center-right parties that Romanian and Bulgarian accession in 2007 happened "too fast, and too little had been done at the time in terms of reform, corruption, and quality of government."
Otjes said that since gains by social-liberals in the 2021 elections earned them second-party status in the ruling coalition, the government had become more of "a positive force" within the bloc despite still emphasizing economic governance.
But Rutte's coalition is also facing a migration crisis that has prompted scenes of asylum seekers sleeping outside refugee reception centers and which he has called "shameful." Rutte has blamed the situation on his own government's decision in 2015 to reduce asylum capacity, along with a housing shortage.
Otjes said the inability of the Dutch government to cope with the inflow "has pushed in many ways what is the biggest conflict within the current Dutch governing coalition."