Global Policy Forum

Two Nations Get Warning on EU Membership


By Graham Bowley & Dan Bilefsky

International Herald Tribune
October 25, 2005

Romania and Bulgaria on Tuesday will receive a blunt warning that their entry into the European Union could be delayed by a year unless they rein in corruption and accelerate the pace of reform of their judicial systems, according to EU officials.

Progress reports to be presented to the European Parliament in Strasbourg by the EU enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, stress that the two countries still have a long way to go to fight corruption and may miss their planned accession to the EU in 2007 if they fail to make faster progress, according to the officials, who requested anonymity because they did not want to speak on the record before the report was presented Tuesday. "We want them to make it in time for accession, but the commission would not hesitate to recommend postponement for one year," said an EU official in Brussels.

The reports are the last before the European Commission is to make a final decision in April or May on whether to recommend that the two countries should join the EU as planned in 2007 or be delayed a year. "The commission has made no secret that it is not satisfied with the pace of reforms and can use a safeguard clause if the countries do not get their acts together by this spring," said an official familiar with the reports.

The entry by Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union has become more delicate following the rejection by France and the Netherlands of the proposed EU constitution in referendums this year. Those outcomes were blamed partly on voter disapproval of further widening of the EU. The votes appeared to suggest that existing EU members, especially slow-growing economies such as France, were losing their appetite for further enlargement that would bring more poor countries into the Union.

In April this year, all 25 EU member states signed an accession treaty putting Romania and Bulgaria on the path for membership by 2007 - but with safeguard clauses if the two countries failed to make reforms. The reports are also expected to highlight concerns in areas such as border controls, human trafficking and action against organized crime. Earlier this month the EU agreed to start membership talks with Turkey but only after a bitter debate about allowing the large, impoverished Muslim country into the bloc. These issues are again at play in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, and sensitivities risk being inflamed further by the failure of the aspirant countries to make sufficient progress on corruption and judicial reform.

Solomon Passy, head of the Bulgarian National Assembly's Committee on Foreign Policy, said, "We have a full understanding of the job which lays in front of us and we have the capacity and the know-how to do it." Passy, a former foreign minister, said, "The climate for European enlargement is much more hostile today than it was 18 months ago, and this is an additional challenge which we must overcome."

Romania, with a population of about 22 million, would be the EU's seventh-largest member but among its poorest. Bulgaria is smaller, with a population of about 7.5 million, but lingering concerns about corruption and other issues, including border security, meant that it, along with Romania, was not included in the last wave of EU enlargement in May 2004. Ten states, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, and Romania's neighbor Hungary, were admitted to the bloc at that time.

The commission's assessment is expected to be an especially tough blow for Bulgaria, which until recently was considered ahead of Romania in approving and carrying out EU-mandated reforms. But the report is expected to show that Bulgaria has slipped. One of the chief reasons for this is indecisive parliamentary elections this summer, which left the country without a government for six weeks. By far the biggest challenge facing both countries is the extent to which their justice systems remain mired in corruption and fraud.

President Traian Basescu of Romania, elected in autumn 2004, has made the fight against corruption his signature policy. The number of people facing corruption allegations in Romania have included a former justice minister, more than 1,100 doctors and teachers, 170 police officers and 3 generals, according to the anticorruption prosecutor's office, an independent body set up by the government to fight corruption. EU officials say that Romania's corruption problems persist in part because judges and government officials are among the lowest paid in Europe, making them susceptible to bribes.

Matthew Brunwasser contributed reporting from Sofia.

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