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France opposes border-free travel for Romania, Bulgaria

AFP - Bulgaria's border with Turkey

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday warned that Bulgaria and Romania were not ready to join Europe’s passport-free Schengen area, amid a heated debate on Roma (Gypsy) immigration in France.


France on Monday said it was firmly opposed to Romania and Bulgaria – transitional members of the European Union since 2007 – joining the “Schengen” area, where passport checks at border crossings have been abolished.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio that the two countries were “unable to secure their own borders” with their non-EU neighbours and should be barred from becoming members of the free-travel zone.

His comments, however, come amid a fierce debate in France over the issue of Roma (Gypsy) travellers in France, who mostly hail from Romania and Bulgaria.

An estimated 20,000 Roma live in hundreds of often squalid makeshift encampments on the fringes of French cities, and tensions with local communities have made their presence a hotly debated issue with the build up to next year's local elections.

It is already the central campaign theme of the far-right anti-European Union National Front, which has warned that opening Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen zone will result in an unwelcome flood of immigrants to France.

And last week, Interior Minister Manuel Valls caused uproar in the left-wing governing coalition by saying most immigrant Roma could not be integrated into society and should go home.

France’s Schengen veto

But if the presence of Roma in France is a significant concern among French voters, Fabius was careful Monday to avoid uncomfortable racial overtones, sticking firmly to concerns over border security at the fringes of the European Union, a view that is shared by Germany.

"People coming from outside Europe could enter Romania and Bulgaria and then freely enter the rest of Europe," Fabius told France Inter radio. "There's a problem there, we must be sure that Bulgaria and Romania have the means to verify that."

Both countries are due to become members of the Schengen zone (which covers most of the EU with the notable exception of the United Kingdom and Ireland) as they accede to full EU membership at the beginning of 2014.

But before EU countries can be admitted into the Schengen area, they must be able to demonstrate their readiness in terms of borders, visas, police cooperation and personal data protection. Each EU country has the right to veto the admission of a member state.

As far as Fabius is concerned, neither Bulgaria nor Romania is ready.

"For the moment, I do not believe that those conditions have been met," Fabius said. “If there isn’t a big change, we are not at all favourable to their becoming part of the Schengen area. There is a lot of work to be done.”

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