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Will the Schengen zone survive?

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The problem of migration poses one of the major challenges to the future of the European Union. Residents in more than half of EU countries call for establishing a strict control of migration, in some cases, even suggesting a complete ban on migrant movements. Meanwhile, any productive solution to this effect will inevitably affect freedom of movement of people within united Europe, which is regulated by the Schengen agreements. What are the prospects for the Schengen zone? And can it be preserved in its current format?

Up to the mid-2010s, EU members pursued their own migration policies, “proceeding from their own national interests.”  After a dramatic upsurge in the level of migration by 2015 it became clear that the potential of some EU countries was limited. A wave of migration swept Europe. Given the situation, many EU governments chose to resort to unilateral “time-serving” steps without thinking about the damage these steps inflicted on neighboring countries or on the long-term interests of the European Union as a whole. The Dublin Regulations, which obliges the authorities of the first country a migrant has arrived in to consider their application for refugee status “proved “unviable.” This was also because lack of control of internal borders of the EU enabled migrants to freely enter any of the Union states and to obtain social benefits there. The “influx of migrants”, along with the terrorist threat, quickly turned the issue of the Schengen zone “into one of the hottest issues” on the European Union agenda.

Hungary, Malta and Slovenia were the first to introduce border control at the end of 2015. In 2016-2017 Belgium imposed control on the border with France, particularly in connection with terrorist acts on its territory. At present, border control within the Schengen zone is exercised by six states. Austria – on land borders with Slovenia, Hungary and Italy. Denmark – on the borders with Sweden and Germany. In France border control is “selective” in line with the state of emergency declared following the November 2015 terrorist attacks. Germany, which thought better of its original intention to put an end to border checks in May 2016, continues to exercise “selective” border control. Norway (which is a non-EU country) and Sweden are practicing similar measures.

Legally, the Schengen agreements allow for border inspections within the Schengen zone “on a temporary basis”, “in case of emergency” and “proportionally with the scale of the threat.” What could justify such measures is “serious threats” to public security and “internal stability”. In reality, experts of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) say, it is practically impossible to explain in terms of cause and result the logic of countries that only consider the possibility of restricting the Schengen agreements, and of those states that have already restored border control within the EU space. Politicians’ statements are vague; it seems that there is a lack of strategic vision of the impact of such measures on the EU policy as a whole. What could serve as the most plausible explanation of such measures, which pursue tactical interests and ignore long-term consequences, is the desire to cater to public opinion.

The matter is that traditional European parties very quickly found themselves in a situation in which anti-immigrant rhetoric turned into a major factor strengthening the positions of their opponents, who called for returning the main decision-making centers in the EU to the national capitals. Those were the forces that in the early 2010s did not have, as a rule, any chances of acquiring significant political influence. The issue of migration has played a crucial role in the decision of the British voters to withdraw from the EU. In Italy, it was after it assumed tough positions against the EU immigration policy that the League Party became a leading force of the new government in Rome. Sebastian Kurz, who has just been sent into retirement from the post of Austrian Chancellor, largely owed his coming to power to the migration crisis of 2015. And Angela Merkel, the most harsh critic of the migration policy, has the third largest faction in Bundestag.

By summer last year, the debates on the migration issue de facto drove the EU into a political deadlock. The problem of preserving or canceling the internal border control was in the focus of attention. The fragile compromise reached in the course of a summit by the heads of state and government in June 2018 “did a lot to ease their differences but little to resolve the migration problem”. In addition to all that, the leading countries of the EU have failed to get the Visegrad Group countries to secure the implementation of the adopted agreements on the distribution of refugees. These compromise like, controversial decisions has triggered a powerful outcry in many EU countries.

Internal security and migration topped the agenda of an “informal” meeting of  leaders of all EU member countries and of the European Commission, which took place in Salzburg on September 19-20, 2018. Austria, Hungary and Italy led the proponents of drastic restrictive measures in relation to migrants. They propose to reorient the EU’s joint efforts from redistribution of asylum seekers to the protection of external borders. In turn, French President Macron came up with political threats against countries that support the idea of greater independence of member states in migration-related matters. He made it crystal clear that countries that do not wish to support the strengthening of the EU’s joint border control and that opt for “greater solidarity” should leave the Schengen zone.

In October same year, rapporteur of the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Internal Affairs, Tanja Fajon, said that internal border control within the Schengen zone runs counter to the EU legislation. There were proposed 42 amendments to the rules regulating the procedure of the resumption of border control at the internal borders of the Schengen zone. The ardent opponents to further centralization of the migration policy led by Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia seem unperturbed by threats from Brussels and the richest EU states. In late May, the Hungarian Minister for EU Affairs said that migration control powers should be transferred from the “politically biased” European Commission back to national governments. In Budapest’s opinion, migration policy issues should be tackled by a specially formed council of interior ministers of the Schengen countries.

Meanwhile, according to critics, the opponents of Schengen must have miscalculated the economic dimension of freedom of movement within the EU, which is fairly large. After the exit of the UK, the annual budget of the European Union risks decreasing by at least 10 billion euros. The European Commission has already proposed redistributing part of the total EU budget from Central and Eastern Europe and Baltic countries in favor of Greece, Italy and Spain, which are experiencing, among other things, an influx of migrants. The resulting dissatisfaction of Eastern Europeans provokes new battles which threaten to “slow down, or even nullify 15 years of integration processes”. Meanwhile, as global competition is getting worse, the EU could become a success only if it introduces restrictions on or even cuts down the “major gain of the European “welfare society”” – its social welfare programs. Back in 2016, the German Bertelsmann Foundation estimated losses from reintroduction of permanent border control within Europe for the period from 2016 to 2025 at 77 billion euros for Germany and up to 470 billion for the EU as a whole.

After the start of a campaign to elect deputies to the new European Parliament, a threat to the Schengen agreements came “out of the blue.” The issue acquired such an urgency that Emmanuel Macron, the de facto leader of supporters of further EU integration and federalization, who had strongly advocated the abolition of internal borders, chose to change his point of view. The French President suggested that the Schengen Agreement “could be revised.” Macron supported demands that border of the Schengen zone should be shut for migrants and that the rules of granting asylum in the EU states should be reconsidered to become tougher. He thereby responded to fears and a striving for greater security which are sweeping ever more European voters. Also, Macron proposed creating a common asylum policy that would be in effect in all EU countries. This proposal has caused severe opposition from Hungary and Italy.

Now, according to the results of the elections to the European Parliament (EP),  Macron’s supporters in France have lost to the National Association of Marine Le Pen, which calls for decisive steps to restrict immigration. And an equally fierce opponent of the current migration policy, the head of the Italian League, Matteo Salvini, has doubled the number of mandates for the coalition of supporters of the revival of national sovereignty of European countries. However, The Financial Times writes, there is no unity of opinion on the EU’s future migration policy among the “nationalist forces” either, which is not surprising, since it directly reflects the moods of the public. In April this year, commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations, there was a large-scale survey conducted among citizens of 14 EU countries. For the respondents, the most painful loss would be the loss of “the ability to live, work and travel in other EU member states.’ Thus, while searching for a solution to one of the most pressing issues of the day, the EU is confronted with a paradoxical clash of public opinion – ordinary people, while backing freedom of movement (obviously, for themselves) are also in favor of restricting it (apparently, for some “unwelcome” individuals).

Politicians, however, are too pressed for time to reflect on all this, particularly with the next general elections just round the corner. At the start of the third decade of May, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen called for a permanent border control so that Denmark could combat illegal immigration and terrorism. Critics were quick to recall that elections in Denmark are scheduled for next month. In addition, it is not at all clear how it could be possible to infinitely “prolong” internal border controls and at the same time maintain formal membership in the Schengen zone. Given the situation, optimists see their chance in that politicians, like Macron, have finally initiated an open discussion on such a burning issue as migration. Pessimists believe that, by reversing their position on the future of Schengen, representatives of traditional parties play into the hands of ultra-right “populists” and “nationalists”, de facto confirming the veracity of their anti-immigrant slogans. If such a tendency prevails, the EU will face a double-edged dilemma: to reduce the Schengen zone “to a limited number of countries”, or abolish it altogether.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

Europe

U.S. President Trump to meet Bulgaria’s Prime Minister at the White House: What to expect?

Iveta Cherneva

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Next Monday, 25 November, President Trump will welcome Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov at the White House for a bilateral meeting.

This is not the first White House visit for Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov who previously met President Obama at the White House in 2012.

The White House press secretary has announced that Trump and Borissov plan to discuss security in the Black Sea region, energy and countering malign influence – all Russia-related topics, as one would expect.

The real reason for the White House treat, however, is Bulgaria’s substantial purchase of US aircraft this year.

In August, Bulgaria bought eight F-16 airplanes from the US for the hefty price of USD 1.2bln. White House meetings with foreign leaders represent special thanks for something a foreign country has done for the United States and the F-16 airplanes purchase seems to be what we are looking at here. The US is a happy seller and Bulgaria is a happy customer.

In the area of energy, Bulgaria is looking towards the US while trying to reach energy diversification and gain independence from Russian natural gas. On this, there is a clear intersection with US interests. Bulgaria agreed in May to purchase natural gas from the US for the first time. Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov met last week with the US Ambassador to Greece to explore the possibility of purchases of American liquid gas down the line.

What is not mentioned by the official White House position is that visa restrictions will be a topic of the meeting, too. The Bulgarian Prime Minister will likely request that President Trump dropped the visa requirements for Bulgarians – an issue the Bulgarian government has been chasing for a while now and something which Bulgarian President Radev had raised with President Trump also on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. Visa restrictions were removed for Polish citizens last month. The Bulgarian Prime Minister will seek the same outcome. On this point, it is unlikely that President Trump would give the green light though.

What we won’t hear about publicly is the issue of the return of ISIS fighters to Europe. No one in Bulgaria really talks about this but one can imagine this is an issue for the US government. Bulgaria doesn’t have a problem with ISIS fighters itself but, as an EU external border country, it is Turkey’s neighbor and the closest to the Middle East EU ground entry point. Last week, Turkey began returning ISIS fighters back to Europe and President Trump has been adamant that European nations with ISIS fighters need to take responsibility for them. Western European EU countries do not want their ISIS fighters back to try them in court or to reintegrate them, which is understandable but also irritating because Europeans have had the unfounded expectation that the US would somehow take care of this. How Bulgaria as an EU country at the crossroads between Turkey, the EU and the US handles that is key. No one in Bulgaria really talks about it, and the various EU, US and Turkish pressures on Bulgaria are not really known, but one can imagine the situation is that of being between a rock and a hard place. So, the return of ISIS fighters is another issue to look out for, although it will not come through in public.

In the past, NATO ally Bulgaria has aided the US with criminal and law enforcement investigations in the areas of terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking. This is another area to look out for.

President Trump’s impeachment is not really a topic in Bulgaria, as no one here seems to be concerned with that. It will be interesting whether Prime Minister Borissov would mention this at all to issue words of support to President Trump. This is something that President Trump would appreciate, although protocol says Prime Minister Borissov would be smart to steer away from impeachment comments.

Direct, to the point and simple words can be expected from President Trump. Prime Minister Borissov, on the other hand, is learning English so the meeting will necessarily have a Bulgarian interpreter. Expect one or two jokes by President Trump about simultaneous Bulgarian interpretation. The meeting will not pass without that.

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EU chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi needs media freedom to do her job

Iveta Cherneva

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Last month, Laura Codruta Kovesi, the former chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate, was officially confirmed as the first ever EU chief prosecutor to head the newly created European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Her team will start work in the end of 2020. 

Kovesi will shake things up. She has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Among the main ones is the silencing and stifling of journalists across Europe, including in Bulgaria. The lack of media freedom will make it exceptionally difficult for Kovesi to do her job and uncover crimes involving EU funding.

As soon as the news hit that Kovesi was to become EU’s top prosecutor, anti-corruption activists across Europe applauded loudly. One could hear the applause also in Bulgaria where we face issues with EU funds misappropriation and theft but also complaints regarding the freedom of the press – a place where Kovesi’s work is much needed.

Defined institutionally, Kovesi’s mandate is “to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud”. The EU’s top prosecutor is tasked with the tough job of going after crimes involving EU money. 

It might sound as a disappointment to many, but Kovesi will not have the institutional competence to address everything that is wrong with a country or a sector. Corruption and fraud are covered by the EU prosecutor’s mandate only as long as they are related to EU funds.

So if Kovesi won’t be a see-it-all, do-it-all messiah, where does this leave media freedom then and why am I talking about it in the context of her job?

Well, bringing to justice crimes related to EU funds is almost impossible without the leads on the ground – work often done by a functioning free media and hard-hitting  investigative journalism that uncovers fishy deals and contracts. It is journalists that sometimes lead the way. Often media investigations chart a course for criminal investigations. The media is a key ally in uncovering crimes involving EU funds. This is particularly true of a service such as the EU’s prosecutor office that will operate from EU headquarters and will rely on leads and allies on the ground.

We can’t expect that an EU service will get all the intricate, hidden local information on its own or through cooperation with the state authorities in question. This is where media and journalists come in. 

Bulgaria – as sad I am to say this – gives a clear illustration of why Kovesi’s job could prove to be especially tough. The country ranks 111th in the world in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters without Borders. 

To illustrate the situation, one should look no further than the current scandal involving the nomination of Bulgaria’s own chief prosecutor and the simultaneous firing of a seasoned journalist who has been critical of the only candidate for Bulgaria’s top prosecutor post.

As reported by Reuters, the national radio journalist Silvia Velikova was fired for allegedly being critical of the work of the deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who has already been selected to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor. Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev vetoed the appointment last week, so now the country is facing judicial uncertainty and protests such as the ones from today. 

Among the reasons why the chief prosecutor’s appointment has been controversial – to say the least – is the sacking of the Bulgarian Radio journalist Silvia Velikova. Her ousting caused protests by Bulgarian journalists which I have been attending, while the capital Sofia saw thousands of protesters marching in the streets against Geshev’s nomination in September, October and now, after the presidential veto.

Where the story gets interesting or horrific – or both – is that as many as four unnamed individuals made phone calls in September to the Director of the National Radio, allegedly asking for the journalist critical of the prosecutor candidate to be fired, or at least to be silenced until Geshev’s selection as chief prosecutor. The journalist Velikova was subsequently fired. She was reinstated to her post after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov spoke in her defence. And the Director of the National Radio was himself fired for stepping over by a media oversight organ.  

In Bulgaria, a persistent complaint is that journalists who ask the inconvenient questions can be removed in a heartbeat, after so much as a phone call. The suspicion remains that shady dealings – not merit – continue to play a significant role in the firings and hirings of Bulgarian journalists.

One should look no further than the stories of investigative journalists Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova. They are both known as hard-hitting investigative journalists that ask the tough questions and uncover corruption and mismanagement. They are both out of job after being pressured to quit a mainstream media. 

Genka Shikerova faced severe intimidation over the years, as her car was set on fire not once but twice, in 2013 and 2014, in relation to her work on Bulgaria’s significant anti-government protests during these years.

Miroluba Benatova, on the other hand, caused massive waves with her recent revelation that she has become a taxi driver – only to surprise foreign tourists about how politically astute and knowledgeable Bulgarian taxi drivers are. “The service in Bulgaria has improved greatly”, told her a German tourist assuming he was being driven by just a regular taxi driver.

So, how is this related to Kovesi?

It is unlikely that by driving a taxi Benatova will be coming across many leads about EU funds theft, to assist Kovesi. Such a waste of talent, and also funds.

The media across Europe has a key role to play in supporting the work of the new EU prosecutor. As long as journalists in countries like Bulgaria lack the freedom to do their jobs, crimes involving EU funding will go uncovered. If Laura Kovesi wants to succeed in her new job, she will have to take context into account and recognize that in many EU states, including Bulgaria, journalists are often not allowed to do their jobs and ask the hard questions. And that’s a shame because Kovesi will not be able to do it alone. 

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Why German car giant Volkswagen should drop Turkey

Iveta Cherneva

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War and aggression are not only questions of ethics and humanitarian disaster. They are bad news for business.

The German car giant Volkwagen whose business model is built on consumer appeal had to stop and pause when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria. A USD 1.4bln Volkswagen investment in a new plant in Turkey is being put on hold by the management, and rightly so.

Unlike business areas more or less immune from consumer pressure – like some financial sectors, for example – car buying is a people thing. It is done by regular people who follow the news and don’t want to stimulate and associate themselves with crimes against humanity and war crimes through their purchases. Investing in a militarily aggressive country simply is bad for an international brand.

As soon as the news hit that Turkey would be starting their military invasion against the Kurds, questions about plans for genocide appeared in the public discourse space. Investing over a billion in such a political climate does not make sense.

By investing into a new plant next to Turkish city Izmir, Volkswagen is not risking security so much. Izmir itself is far removed from Turkey’s southern border — although terrorist attacks in the current environment are generally not out of the question.

The risk question rather lies elsewhere. Business likes stability and predictability. Aggressive economic sanctions which are likely to be imposed on Turkey by the EU and the US would affect many economic and business aspects which the company has to factor in. Two weeks ago the US House of Representatives already voted to impose sanctions on Turkey, which now leaves the Senate to vote on an identical resolution.

Economic sanctions affect negatively the purchasing power of the population. And Volkswagen’s new business would rely greatly on the Turkish client in a market of over 80mln people.

Sanctions also have a psychological “buckle-up” effect on customers in economies “under siege”, whereby clients are less likely to want to splurge on a new car in strenuous times.

Volkswagen is a German but also a European company. Its decision will signal clearly if it lives by the EU values of support for human rights, or it decides to look the other way and put business first.

But is not only about reputational damage, which Volkswagen seems to be concerned with. There are real business counter-arguments which coincide with anti-war concerns.

Dogus Otomotiv, the Turkish distributor of VW vehicles, fell as much as 6.5% in Istanbul trading after the news for the Turkish offensive.

Apart from their effects on the Turkish consumer, economic sanctions will also likely keep Turkey away from international capital markets.

There is also the question of an EU company investing outside the EU, which has raised eyebrows. It is up to the European Commission now to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward after a complaint was filed. Turkey offered the German conglomerate a generous 400mln euro subsidy which is a problem when it comes to the EU rules and regulations on competition.

The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswagen clearly run counter EU rules and the EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.

In a context where Turkey takes care of 4mln refugees — subject to an agreement with the EU — and often threatens the EU that it would “open the gates”, it is not clear if the Commission would muster the guts to say no, however. In that sense, the German company’s own decision to pull from the deal would be welcome because the Commission itself wouldn’t have to pronounce on the issue and risk angering Turkey.

While some commentators do not believe that Volkswagen would scrap altogether the investment and is only delaying the decision, it is worth remembering that the Syria conflict is a complex, multi-player conflict which has gone on for more than 8 years. Turkey’s entry in Syria is unlikely to end in a month. Erdogan has communicated his intention to stay in Syria until the Kurds back down.

In October it was reported that the Turkish forces are already using chemical weapons on the Kurdish population which potentially makes Turkish President Erdogan a war criminal. For a corporate giant like Volkswagen, giving an economic boost for such a state would mean indirectly supporting war crimes.

As Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection with the Syrian Assad forces, this seems to be anything but a slow-down. Turkey has just thrown a whole lot of wood into the fire.

Volkswagen will find itself “monitoring” the situation for a long time. There is a case for making the sustainable business decision to drop the risky deal altogether, soon.

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