The European Union decided Thursday to keep Bulgaria and Romania out of its borderless travel zone even though the two EU nations have met the required technical standards.
The move by EU interior ministers came amid increasing fears of illegal immigration and crime across the continent and put further pressure on the Schengen system of unfettered travel across 26 European nations.
"What worries a number of member states is corruption may thrive in these countries and thus can weaken the protection of the borders," French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said of Romania and Bulgaria. He proposed a system of putting EU officials alongside national border guards as an extra check.
The borderless travel system has already been hurt by Denmark's plan to restore customs checks and a public spat between Italy and France over thousands of Tunisian refugees flooding across the Mediterranean Sea over the past months.
Germany criticized Denmark on Thursday for "coldly undermining" one of the cornerstones of EU unity. Along with the establishment of the euro currency, the Schengen zone is seen as one of the most important EU achievements.
"We are in favor of giving some more flexibility" to beef up internal border controls within the Schengen zone, said Denmark's Justice Minister Lars Barfoed.
Bulgaria and Romania were given a cold shoulder by the EU ministers only one day after the EU parliament voted that they were ready to join Schengen.
The Netherlands held off on any quick decision for the two, since there still was doubt whether they were strong enough to assure effective control of the external border of the Schengen zone. That doomed the move, which needs unanimity.
"It is too early to take a decision now, and it may take some time," said Dutch Immigration Minister Gerd Leers. "It is imperative that all adopted judicial reform measures in Romania and Bulgaria are effective and irreversible."
The nations will look at the situation again in September before deciding how to proceed. Schengen membership could easily be pushed back until next year.
With its long coastline, Greece has been the main entry point for most illegal immigration into the EU, and the addition of Bulgaria and Romania would add a whole new Black Sea coast to protect.
The decision Thursday was another blow for closer integration and openness in the EU.
Danish business and tourism representatives complained Thursday the government's plan to restore customs checks along its borders risked isolating the Scandinavian country.
Karsten Dybvad, head of the Confederation of Danish Industry, said it sends a "signal that we are shutting ourselves in instead of opening."
Barfoed called such comments "totally nonsense, completely nonsense."
"People coming to Denmark will hardly notice that we have reinforced customs control. But, of course, if you are a smuggler of weapons or drugs, then you might have a problem."
The Danish plan to reinstall customs control booths is an attempt to meet demands of the government's key ally, the nationalist Danish People's Party.
Opponents say it is a violation of EU free border agreements, and the EU is studying whether the Danish plan is legal.
Jan M. Olsen contributed from Copenhagen