Romania and Bulgaria, the two candidates left out of the 2004 wave of European Union enlargement, are asking for formal guarantees that they will join the bloc in 2007. The joint appeal by the Romanian and Bulgarian presidents came after suggestions that the two countries' support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq could damage their chances. Disagreements over Iraq have strained relations between Romania and Bulgaria and some EU member states, but analysts say that fulfilling the admission criteria remains the main condition for EU membership.
Prague, 16 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria and Romania are calling on the European Union to offer official assurances they will be admitted into the EU in 2007, as 10 candidates set to join the bloc next year sign their membership treaties in Athens today.
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov and his Romanian counterpart, Ion Iliescu, said in a joint statement that they expect the EU summit in Athens to provide "categorical confirmation" of their countries' perspectives within Europe.
The statement, issued in Sofia on 14 April, expresses hope that the two countries -- the only European candidates left out of the 2004 wave of enlargement -- will receive confirmation in Athens on "the perspective of a 27-member European Union in 2007."
All of the EU candidates from Eastern and Central Europe have supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq and have been subjected to criticism from EU states opposed to the conflict, most notably France and Germany. But Romania and Bulgaria -- the laggards in the EU enlargement process -- attracted the fiercest criticism from French President Jacques Chirac.
The two Balkan neighbors were invited to open membership talks in 2000, in a move seen by many as a reward for their support of NATO's 1999 air strikes on Yugoslavia, rather than as recognition of their economic and institutional readiness.
On 17 February, Chirac hinted that the two countries may have compromised any chances they had of joining the EU in 2007 by siding with the U.S. on Iraq. Chirac said Romania and Bulgaria had missed "a good opportunity to shut up."
Balkans affairs analyst Joan Hoey of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) says the dispute has highlighted already-existing skepticism about the readiness of the two countries to join the bloc in 2007.
"I think really what this whole Iraq affair has brought out is the already existing skepticism about Romania -- particularly Romania and Bulgaria's membership prospects within the union. It's already debatable whether Romania will have satisfied all the membership criteria by that date, given that it has yet to achieve recognition as a functioning market economy. And to stand any chance of joining by 2007, Romania would have to close negotiations on all chapters of the acquis [communautaire] by the end of 2004, which is a pretty exacting target to meet," Hoey said.
With the crucial support of Washington, Romania and Bulgaria last year succeeded in securing invitations to join NATO in 2004. But they were left out of the 2004 EU enlargement because of the slow pace of economic and institutional reforms.
Bulgaria and Romania, among Europe's poorest countries, last year proposed -- and the EU accepted in principle -- that 2007 be set as a tentative date for their accession.
Bulgaria is more advanced in reforms and in EU negotiations than Romania, having "closed" 23 out of 31 chapters, compared to Romania's 16.
Romania also has been singled out for its problem with widespread corruption, with EU as well as NATO officials repeatedly warning the government to tackle bribery and graft more seriously.
Hoey explained that Bucharest's relations with Brussels have also been weakened by the fact that Romania -- seeking U.S. support for its NATO bid -- has been caught in the middle in previous trans-Atlantic disputes.
"We should remember, as well, that as far as Romania is concerned, this wasn't the first occasion on which the authorities in Bucharest annoyed the European Union. There was the [Romanian orphans] adoptions issue, which has been a long-running source of contention with Brussels, with the U.S. having a different approach on that issue. And there was also the issue of Romania deciding unilaterally to make an agreement with the U.S. on potentially [not] handing over U.S. personnel to the International Criminal Court, and that issue was also something that annoyed leading politicians in Brussels. So this [Iraqi issue] is the third and most serious instance," Hoey said.
Romania has attempted to mend relations with EU heavyweights France and Germany and reassert its commitment to Europe. Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana last week visited Paris and said upon his return that Bucharest had "learned a lesson" from the Iraq crisis. Geoana added that Romania needs "a strong Europe."
Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, meanwhile, met with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin, where he said that EU membership remains his government's top priority.
Some EU officials have recently indicated that integration of the 10 candidates set to join in 2004 may take longer that expected, prompting concerns in Romania and Bulgaria that their accession might be postponed indefinitely.
Germany's EU envoy, Wilhelm Schoenfelder, said in Luxemburg this week that the EU "must have a pause" and cannot have "continuous negotiations about expansion."
But analysts say it will be the fulfillment of EU admission criteria that will count in the end. EU enlargement analyst Heather Grabbe of the London-based Centre for European Reform (CER) says the accession mechanism cannot be stopped, provided the candidates are doing their homework.
"The way the EU's accession process is set up, it's actually quite hard for the EU to refuse membership to countries which have met the criteria. So as long as they can put the ticks in all of the boxes on the accession partnership which the commission has issued, as long as they can fulfill the criteria and be seen to do so, it's actually then very hard for any EU member state to put a spanner in the works of the accession process," Grabbe said.
The issue may further be complicated by the appearance of another EU contender, Croatia, which recently applied for membership. Croatia, whose application is to be considered within a year, is seen by many as capable of catching up with Bulgaria in its preparations, and even of going ahead of Romania.
Croatian officials say they are aiming to join the EU in 2007, together with Romania and Bulgaria, or alone in 2008. But Grabbe said the three will most likely join at the same time, whether in 2007 or later.
"Croatia is expected by many EU member states to be ready to join certainly not longer after Romania is ready to join. It might even move ahead of Romania in its preparations. Now, the EU is unlikely to crank up its whole accession machinery just for one country, so I think the most likely thing is, in the end, that Croatia will join the same time as Romania and Bulgaria," Grabbe said.
Turkey, the 13th candidate country, is also requesting a clear date to begin accession talks. Grabbe said Turkey's bid is unlikely to influence the candidacies of Romania and Bulgaria in any way. But she warned the two countries to avoid what she calls the "Turkey trap" -- that is, not being able to meet membership conditions because of domestic political and economic obstacles.