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EU: Romania, Bulgaria Given OK To Join In 2007

By Breffni O'Rourke and Ahto Lobjakas --> Downtown Sofia reflected in a bank window (epa) PRAGUE, September 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Romania and Bulgaria today turned the corner in their 12-year campaign to join the European Union.

The European Commission published progress reports on both countries recommending that the political leaders of the 25-nation bloc, at their October summit, admit the two candidates on January 1.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, made the historic announcement at a plenary sitting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg today.
MORE: Read an exclusive RFE/RL interview with Romanian President Traian Basescu.

"The European Commission has just adopted its final report on the accession of Bulgaria and Romania," he said. "Our conclusion is that both countries are in a position to take on the rights and obligations of European Union membership on January 1, 2007.

Yes, With Reservations

However, reflecting widespread concern within the EU that neither Romania nor Bulgaria is really ready for membership, Brussels is attaching unprecedented safeguards to the first three years of their membership. Barroso said that the EU is setting up monitoring mechanisms to ensure that reforms will continue beyond January 1.

"The commission will set up a mechanism for cooperation and verification of progress in the areas of judicial reform, the fight against corruption, and organized crime," Barroso said. "The mechanism contains specific benchmarks, which have to be met. The commission will report regularly to the [European] Parliament and to the [European] Council on the progress achieved."

Both Barroso and Rehn today assured their listeners in the European Parliament that these measures and the sanctions that would follow Romania's or Bulgaria's noncompliance will be enough to protect the rest of the EU.

For instance, the EU reserves the right to close its markets to Romanian and Bulgarian agricultural produce unless food-safety standards are improved.

Barroso said Bulgaria and Romania still have much work to do (epa file photo)

The newcomers must also show they have the administrative capacity to securely handle the billions of euros involved in the agriculture and regional aid programs -- or some of the funds will be withheld.

Corruption and organized crime are rife in both countries, and they must prove they are working to combat them with proper judicial mechanisms and high-level anticorruption panels -- or the EU could suspend its recognition of some of the countries' court decisions.

Motivation To Improve

An earlier EU decision to admit Bulgaria and Romania, although irrevocable, allowed the union to delay their entry by a year. Up until this summer, the conventional wisdom in Brussels was that the EU would opt for January 1, 2008, in recognition of the difficulties faced by reforms in both countries.

However, officials now say privately the European Commission came to realize over the summer that by postponing accession it would simply risk losing its last remaining lever. While admission on January 1, 2008, would come with an ironclad guarantee, holding out the prospect of open doors a year earlier could still serve as an incentive to reform.

Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn today confirmed that reforms in both countries had "peaked" over the past four to five months.

Labor Concerns

Reflecting the pessimism of the rest of the EU for the prospects of the Romanian and Bulgarian economies, their workers are extremely unlikely to be granted immediate freedom of movement to live and work in other EU states.

Even Britain, Ireland, and Sweden, the only old EU members to freely accept eastern workers after the last EU enlargement in 2004, are reluctant to offer the same terms to Romanians and Bulgarians, fearing a flood of immigrants in search of higher living standards.

However, most of the "new" member states of the 2004 intake will probably open their borders.

The backwardness of the Bulgarian and Romanian economies can be seen in statistics that show that the two Balkan nations, with 30 million people, will make up 6 percent of the EU's population, but less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

End Of Enlargement?

The admission of Romania and Bulgaria comes at a difficult moment for the EU. Public opinion in Western Europe was cold to the 2004 enlargement, and remains cold today towards Bucharest and Sofia.

The prospect of further accessions involving the Balkan countries and Turkey has compounded a legitimacy crisis within the EU, which last year saw its constitution rejected by Dutch and French voters in referendums. It is now commonly accepted that the EU constitution cannot be revived in its present form.

Barroso today repeated his earlier calls for further enlargement to be put on hold until the EU adjusts itself.

"After the completion of this fifth enlargement with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, I believe that an institutional settlement should precede any future enlargement," he said. "This is the way to ensure that our enlarged union will function in an efficient and harmonious way."

Such remarks will cause concern in Turkey, Ukraine, and a flock of smaller Balkan and Caucasian nations that also aspire to join the union.

EU Expands Eastward

To view RFE/RL's archive of coverage related to EU expansion, click here .