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EU: Commission Gives Conditional 'Yes' To Romania, Bulgaria

European Commission chief Barroso said Bulgaria in particular must do more (epa) PRAGUE, May 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission issued a report today telling Romania and Bulgaria they must do more to meet accession criteria before they can officially join the European Union in 2007.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Bulgaria and Romania could join the European Union in January 2007 provided they pass a final review in early October of their fight against corruption and improve state administration.

Barroso, introducing the report, told the EU Parliament in Strasbourg: "No later than early October, we will review the situation on those outstanding issues. On this basis, the [European] Commission will consider whether the date of their accession to the European Union on the first of January, 2007, can be maintained."

The report presented in Strasbourg by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the European Commission wants both countries to accelerate reforms before their planned entry into the European Union on January 1, 2007.

Bulgaria's Failure To Fight Corruption

The report was more critical on Bulgaria than of Romania, blasting Bulgaria for its failure to step up the fight against corruption and organized crime. It says that, "while this has been a
stated national priority, there are still no tangible results in
investigating and prosecuting organized-crime networks."

points to the fact that contract killings of organized-crime figures
"seldom give rise to successful investigation and prosecution and
continue to represent a challenge for the rule of law in the country."
Rehn's report calls for tangible results such as prosecutions,
indictments, trials, and convictions, for those found guilty of
criminal actions.

"Bulgaria still needs to demonstrate clear evidence of results in the fight against corruption, in particular, high-level corruption, notably in terms of investigations and subsequent judicial proceedings," Barroso said. "It also needs to further reform the judiciary and remove any ambiguity regarding its independence. We also expect that Bulgaria will step up efforts in investigating organized crime networks."

Analyst Gergana Noutcheva of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies told RFE/RL that the Bulgarian government must show more commitment in pursuing organized crime.

"I don't have evidence to prove whether there's a connection between organized crime and the political system in Bulgaria, as lots of media report, but we haven't seen the evidence," she said. "And for us to see the evidence, we'll have to see convictions in the court, and that's what the European Union wants. You could argue that that's a capacity issue, then you can do something about it. [But] if it is a political will issue, then it's a bit more difficult."

Improvement In Romania

The report says Romania has reduced its number of so-called red flags, or problem areas, from 14 to four mostly technical ones. EU officials have praised the Romanian government's recent results in fighting high-level corruption and reforming the judiciary.

Analyst Noutcheva believes Bucharest's determination to tackle such problems head-on has played to its advantage. "I think the [institutional-reform] standards are comparable in the two countries," she said. "What makes a difference in the case of Romania at the moment is really the committed attitude of the government. From that point of view, Romania has an advantage at the moment. But in terms of governance standards, it's more or less the same."

Romania's remaining problems regard establishing a computerized value-added-tax (VAT) collection system, food safety, and setting up agencies to pay and monitor EU farm subsidies.

The report warns both countries that they risk losing billions of euros if such agencies are not rapidly established. It also tells the two that some agriculture exports could be banned unless better food-safety measures are implemented.

Final Decision Delayed

The countries are expected to be given several months to fulfill all the membership requirements. A final assessment will then be made in September or October. A postponement of the entry date is unlikely, given the procedural complications it would imply.

Instead, if by September or October the two countries are still lagging in some areas, the commission may decide to implement "safeguard clauses," that is, monitoring mechanisms to ensure conditions are met before they have full benefits of EU membership.

Enlargement Commissioner Rehn today made clear the commission will not shy away from using such measures. But Noutcheva said such mechanisms appear to be a last-resort solution for the EU to keep up the reform pressure on the two after their full-fledged accession.

"While the commission realizes that certain technical problems can be fixed by October, the big problems, with corruption, organized crime, and reform of the judiciary, those cannot deliver results in a couple of more months," Noutcheva said. "But, since the EU has already promised, it's difficult for it to renege on its commitments, so it is looking for mechanisms to influence the reform patterns of the two countries postaccession."

However, such monitoring is unprecedented in the EU and critics say it could be seen as second-class membership.

EU officials say a final "political decision" on the issue would be made by the 25-member commission, the EU's executive arm, in closed-door discussions later today.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn will visit Romania and Bulgaria on May 16-17 to discuss the commission's decision with the two countries' governments.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

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