The Importance of the Free Movement Club – Romania Finds Its Own Voice On The Geostrategic Chessboard

Duggan Flanakin
Europe map with European flag and a large group of figures.

United States (Brussels Morning Newspaper), Two major external conflicts – one well-known, one less so – have caused European solidarity to face unprecedented challenges.

The refugee crisis in Ukraine is at risk of being compounded by a new crisis. On one hand, another wave of refugees from the Middle East is expected; on the other, the risk of terrorist attacks in major capitals is increasing.

In spite of this challenging context, some countries are still detached from the realities upon which the European Union (EU) was built.

Last year Austria and the Netherlands blocked the admission of two new members – Romania and Bulgaria – into the Schengen area. This raised questions about the political rationale of the decision and the reward system used by the European establishment.

Would a Schengen area with 28 members function better than one with 26? Of course, each member state contributes to European security in its own way. An integrated system and more actors could cope well with both new and existing challenges.

For instance, Romania, as the conflict in Ukraine rages, has commendably managed the massive influx of war refugees. Romania also shares the longest border with the country under Russia’s bombardment.

Yet Romanian citizens continue to be excluded from the “free movement club.” European transporters lose time, money, and patience waiting in long queues in Hungary, the nearest Schengen member, as Romanian territory plays an ever-expanding role in the transit of grains from Ukraine to Western Europe.

The European Commission has decided that Romania meets the technical criteria for Schengen membership. The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favor of the country joining the borderless community. A majority of states have given Romania a passing grade since the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) in December 2022.

However, while Brussels understands that Romania is a net contributor to border security and supports its plot, Vienna plays the role of the deaf man through whose mouth mysterious voices speak.

What the Austrian Chancellery fails to grasp when it continues to unjustifiably wield a veto against Romania and Bulgaria is that it affects the unity of the European project. Lacking reasons but full of justifications, Austria’s rhetoric conditions the positive vote on reforming the institutions that support the Schengen community. Even to its southern neighbor, Italy, Austria is making life difficult at the Brenner border crossing, risking more legal battles at the European Court of Justice.

Chancellor Nehammer seems to want to surround himself with a high wall, forgetting that the wall is being built in the middle of critical European transport corridors.

But who are the mysterious voices that use Austria as a pawn on the geostrategic chessboard?

Believe it or not, Vienna power centers heavily finance Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine. Austrian companies (some with state capital) continue to do business with Moscow as if nothing extraordinary has happened in Kyiv, Odesa, or Bucha.

While Romania, Germany, and other countries have nearly eliminated their dependence on the politically manipulated fuel pump of Vladimir Putin, Austria has increased the volumes of gas and oil streaming through pipelines from the heart of Siberia.

While other European countries, with Romania, being one of the quieter and more active ones, support the defense efforts of Ukrainians, Nehammer’s cabinet leverages historical military neutrality to send soft gestures to the Kremlin’s ruler.

The former head of Austrian intelligence, Peter Gridling, doesn’t hesitate to warn that Vienna receives light from the East. “Austria’s reputation as a playground for Russian spies is well-deserved,” he told FT. He continued with grim disclosures, even accusing the state-owned petrochemical company OMV of playing the role of Moscow’s Trojan horse in the heart of Europe.

The fact that Brussels doesn’t assert equal – or far greater – pressure on Chancellor Nehammer as it does on Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is duplicity at best, and hypocrisy at worst.

More disheartening is the fact that Vienna leverages high refugee flow for political cover to justify last year’s Schengen veto. Concurrently, Romania has quietly and efficiently managed millions of war refugees.

A new vote is expected in the Justice and Home Affairs Council in December this year, with Karl Nehammer continuing to demand an abstract reform of the Schengen area in exchange for his positive vote for Romania.

Perhaps a semester of political science at a Romanian university would pay dividends to Nehammer and reinvigorate EU solidarity.

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Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. The views expressed are his own.