Bulgaria's Schengen (Corruption) Ordeal and Finland
One more obstacle on Bulgaria's way to join the Schengen Agreement seemed to vanish in mid-November when Finland officially softened its stance on the country's bid to enter EU's border-free zone.
The Nordic country agreed to a compromise phased-in solution proposed by France and Germany, albeit it surely remains in doubt as to whether Bulgaria and Romania are mature enough to join Schengen. The compromise foresees the two Balkan neighbors opening their air and sea borders in March 2012, while land borders would be discussed in July.
"We need to see that there has been progress in Bulgaria and Romania before the first decision is made in March and this is connected to combatting corruption and improving the judicial system. When the decision on land borders is made, this has to be taken into consideration once again," Paivi Pietarinen, an expert with Finland's Interior Ministry, told reporters from Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) and the Trud daily at the end of November in Helsinki.
She referred to the upcoming Cooperation and Verification Mechanism interim reports which her country considers to be key indicators for the EU newcomers' preparedness to join Schengen.
Finland wants to convince Bulgaria that its stance on the Schengen issue has nothing to do with any internal political struggles or anything else besides firmly adhering to its principles.
"We believe that every member state has to stick to rules that we have commonly created in all situations. If a member state makes a commitment, it has to stick to it," Pietarinen pointed out, explaining that Bulgaria and Romania still have to meet some requirements in the Justice and Home Affairs sectors which all other countries in EU have covered a long time ago.
Rules just have to be abided to, Finland believes – as it should have been with the Eurozone.
In Bulgaria's case, it is once again the corruption problem that has to be tackled.
A year ago, I asked Finland's ambassador to Bulgaria Tarja Laitiainen how her country achieved such impressive results in combatting corruption. A rather na?ve question, which Her Excellency answered by explaining that Finland has not had the same historical predisposition to suffer from such deeply rooted corruption issues.
In November, I posed another question to Pentti Makinen, chair of Transparency Finland: how much time does Bulgaria need to reach the Finnish level of coping with corruption. "
"Twenty years," he said – and I believe his answer was fairly diplomatic.
It is obviously quite difficult for Bulgaria to "combat" phenomena which are so deeply rooted in its culture and history. Perhaps the country could rather "grow its way out" of it by engaging in a slow process that encompasses all areas of society.
A quality leap can hardly be achieved only through a number of vague political declarations, court trials and even verdicts (Bulgaria's authorities seem to believe that the judicial system is more or less capable of singlehandedly dealing with the corruption issue.) Instead, the problem is more likely to be solved by years of painstaking efforts in which governments, the media, the judicial system, the business and the society as a whole all take part.
When Finland appointed its new (traditionally coalitional) government in the spring of 2011, the media in the country were outraged by the parties' decision not to make public some parts of their negotiation process.
The Finnish society has developed enough to stand up for transparency and egalitarity almost effortlessly, with most of its members not even thinking of breaking the rules.
Transparency International's latest Corruption Perception Index which was published last week seems to confirm that Finland is nearly as free of corruption as a country can realistically get. On the contrary, Bulgaria turned out to be last among a total of 30 countries in the EU and Western Europe region.
Bulgaria's corruption index has been worsening ever since 2009 when it had 3.8 points out of 10, reaching a mere 3.3 in 2011. The country's realistic target for the upcoming years is reaching the level of transparency of its Balkan neighbors.
During his recent visit to Finland, Bulgaria's Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov reiterated his country's technical readiness to join the Schengen Agreement, even though it has been known for months now that Bulgaria is technically prepared.
However, when it comes to issues more complicated than the technical readiness for Schengen, Tsvetanov and other Bulgarian politicians appear to be at a loss. Corruption is one of these issues, since it could be hardly "measured" in the number of court trials that have been launched in a particular country or the number of times its politicians have declared they have the "political will" to combat it.
Bulgaria will most likely enter the Schengen Agreement in 2012 – if the Netherlands alters its stance, that is. If this is the sole purpose of the Bulgarian politicians, they are almost there
It is unclear, however, how much time will it take for the country to evolve into a functional democracy that abides to certain rules. It is not a prerequisite for joining Schengen per se, but it is the long-term goal.