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EU: Verheugen Says Accession Talks With Romania To End By October 2004

By Ahto Lobjakas and Eugen Tomiuc

Romania's European Union entry bid received another boost yesterday when the bloc's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, said the country could conclude accession talks by the end of October 2004. And as RFE/RL reports, Verheugen also appeared positive about Romania and Bulgaria joining the union by 2007.

Brussels/Prague, 20 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Instead of the more traditional European Union "support" for Romania joining in 2007, Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen yesterday spoke of an EU "commitment" after meeting Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana in Brussels.

"I have clearly repeated our commitment that it is our objective to welcome Romania as a member in 2007 and therefore the [European] Commission will do its best to conclude negotiations with Romania during its term, which will the end of October 2004," Verheugen said.

Verheugen effectively confirmed a remark made by the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, two weeks ago when he told reporters in Brussels that Romania's "stablemate" Bulgaria could wrap up entry talks by late next year.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Romania's chief EU negotiator, Vasile Puscas, commented on the significance of Verheugen's remarks.

"Mr. Verheugen's announcement is in accordance with the schedule which we set in our domestic preparations and, especially, in completing the negotiations process. What remains to be done by us is to complete the implementation of our [EU accession] road map, to fulfill our objectives for this year, as well as for the next years, and to work as efficiently and as well as possible," Puscas said.

Last year, before the Copenhagen summit in December, both Bulgaria and Romania were known to be lobbying for a pre-May 2004 end date to negotiations. The 10 front-runners, now known as the "acceding states," are scheduled to join on 1 May 2004, and both Bulgaria and Romania stressed fears that their relative status would be downgraded unless they concluded entry talks before that date.

That aim, however, was rejected by the EU as unrealistic. The current offer of late October 2004 is the second-best alternative, as both Romania and Bulgaria obviously want to clear matters up before the current enlargement-friendly EC leaves office on 31 October 2004. However, this offer will need to be endorsed by an EU summit.

The Commission says everything still depends on Romania's own progress. Verheugen yesterday listed a catalog of shortcomings: "I have to stress it [takes] strong efforts on the Romanian side. The issues are well known. It is still administrative capacity, including the reform of the civil service, restructuring of certain areas of the economy. It is still the problem of judiciary reform and some political problems."

Foremost among the political problems is that of corruption. But Verheugen added that Romania's government is making "decisive efforts" to cope with the shortcomings.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Romanian Foreign Minister Geoana said he was encouraged by Verheugen's comments on the outlook for Romania, but also acknowledged the "vulnerable spots" in the country's candidacy.

"This is a statement which we appreciate as being extremely encouraging and positive. The statement was prefigured by what President Romano Prodi and Commissioner Verheugen told Romanian Prime Minister [Adrian Nastase] two weeks ago during the premier's visit here in Brussels. [European Trade] Commissioner Pascal Lamy [when he was] in Bucharest also hinted to this. I believe that what Mr. Verheugen wanted to say publicly today is that we have the Commission's entire support for closing negotiations during its current mandate, that the EU members have the political interest to support Romania's efforts [to meet the October 2004 date]. I also believe that the extremely coherent messages coming from our government in Bucharest, regarding our admission that there are some vulnerable spots in our candidacy and in the negotiations process which we are trying to resolve, represents, if you want, an element of credibility and seriousness which was recognized by Commissioner Verheugen in his statement today."

Geoana said "no effort would be spared" to achieve the target dates mentioned. But his mind was mostly on Romania's economy. Last year, the Commission elevated Bulgaria to the status of a "functioning market economy," at least in the medium term, threatening to decouple Romania, which was not given similar recognition.

Geoana was clear yesterday that Romania expects to earn the same plaudits this year.

"The political, strategic, and fundamental objective of our government is to make sure that the annual report of the Commission will recognize significant effort and progress in Romania, especially when it comes to the functioning of the market economy. I know it is something which is mainly in our hands, but for us it is politically a highly important issue, and we will do whatever it takes," Geoana said.

It is an open secret that although the Commission's progress reports will officially see the light of day in November, their main conclusions will be in place by June. Conventional wisdom in Brussels says Romania's recognition as a market economy is virtually assured.

Recognition as a market economy this year will constitute an important milestone in Romania's progress toward concluding accession talks in October 2004. It also points to the Commission's willingness to cut a few corners, if necessary, to keep Romania firmly on board for a 2007 entry.

The Commission's support will be valuable for both Romania and Bulgaria in the run-up to the EU budget talks for 2007 to 2013, which will, inevitably, be highly contested. The outgoing Commission will draw up its initial budget proposals before it leaves office, which Romania and Bulgaria hope will stand them in good stead as nonmembers when the debate begins in earnest in 2005 and 2006.

Assuming that Romania and Bulgaria do conclude accession negotiations in October 2004, the precise nature of their participation in EU decision-making before membership in 2007 remains an open question.

Geoana yesterday said Romania is seeking to "identify ad hoc mechanisms to couple Romania and Bulgaria to the fundamental debates in Europe" after the 10 front-runners join on 1 May 2004.