Brussels, 13 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria and Romania cleared another hurdle today on their long road to EU membership.
The European Parliament, sitting this week in Strasbourg, voted by a large majority to approve the accession of both countries in 2007. Bulgaria received a total of 522 votes in favor with 70 against. Romania’s margin was a little less favorable, with 497 for and 93 against.
The votes mean both Bulgaria and Romania can sign their accession treaties on 25 April and are virtually guaranteed accession.
Geoffrey van Orden, the parliament's rapporteur for Bulgaria, welcomed the vote. "The important thing, of course, is that Bulgaria is well on course for accession on 1 January 2007," van Orden said. "Although there are no illusions that there's still a lot of work to be done. There is much to be done, but today we've had an overwhelmingly positive signal from the parliament. And that's good for all of us."
Both countries must implement further reforms to avoid the so-called activation of “safeguard clauses” created by EU member states in the past few years, which would delay accession.
The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, issued a statement welcoming the parliament’s decision. The statement stresses, however, that the commission is intent on making sure that the two countries join the EU “well prepared.”
Rehn added a slight qualification to the significance of today's vote, saying Bulgaria and Romania were given the "benefit of the doubt" and adding that "the jury is still out."
This applies in particular to Romania, which the EU regards as the less prepared of the two. Although it would face the same length of delay as Bulgaria, the safeguard measure can be triggered much more easily for Romania.
Pierre Moscovici, the rapporteur for Romania, said the vote was a sign the parliament has chosen to express its trust in the country.
"This is a sign of friendship and trust toward Romania, the Romanian people, the political forces in Romania -- that is how it should be understood," Moscovici said. "At the same time, this trust should remain vigilant and attentive [to developments in Romania]."
EU officials have also made clear that while the two countries had so far approached accession in tandem and were given the same target dates, this will not apply to safeguard measures. These can be applied individually.
While Bulgaria and Romania approached accession in tandem and were given the same target dates, this will not apply to safeguard measures.
The European Commission has said Romania may be unable to apply EU law in a number of key areas. In Bulgaria's case, the concerns are less basic. Romania still has serious problems implementing EU rules for government aid to businesses, while its record of implementing of EU law in the field of justice and home affairs is poor.
Bulgaria must strengthen its judiciary to improve the fight against corruption, organized crime, and human trafficking.
The monitoring process will be overseen by the European Commission, which will release its annual progress reports on the two countries in November.
However, Elmar Brok, head of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said after today's vote that member states had “at the 11th hour” agreed to extend the parliament’s supervisory role.
Brok said the signing will go ahead as planned on 25 April, but that much work remains for both countries.
"We attach great importance [to the fact] that both countries fulfill the conditions which are laid down in the [accession] treaties," Brok said.
Under EU rules, today's vote was to be the only clear chance for the parliament to affect the course of the two countries’ accession.
However, deputies said the parliament had forced concessions, threatening to use their right to block EU budgets and cut funds for the two countries between 2007 and 2013.
Together, Bulgaria and Romania were to stand to gain $44 billion euros from the EU budget for the next six-year cycle.