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EU: Romania, Bulgaria Still On Track

Financial troubles in Romania and a sharp swing there against the governing coalition in local elections have raised fears of delay in membership negotiations with the European Union. Meanwhile, neighbor Bulgaria is hoping that the aura of Balkan instability emanating from Romania does not also rub off on it, to its disadvantage at the EU. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Romania is at the center of fresh adverse publicity this week, and there is speculation that its bid to join the European Union could be adversely affected by the negative aura of instability that has been building up.

Angry crowds of small investors have been out on the streets demanding government action over a failed unit trust, the National Investment Fund, or FNI. In some cases violence has flared, as investors show their rage at the prospect of losing their money. There also has been a run on bank branches.

Coupled with that has been the poor showing at the weekend of the centrist governing coalition in the local elections. The leftists have gained heavily, raising the possibility of a leftist government replacing the unpopular administration of Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu in the parliamentary elections late this year. The fear is that the leftists might not be willing to forge ahead with the stiff economic and administrative reforms required to prepare Romania for EU membership.

And behind that is the specter that the ex-communist former President Ion Iliescu could be planning to try for the presidency, on a platform which would be expected to be hostile to reform.

In neighboring Bulgaria, worry has surfaced that its own EU application could be disadvantaged by geographical association with Romania -- the two countries are so often lumped together as the backward duo of EU candidates.

In Brussels, European Union officials are keeping tight-lipped, unwilling to comment upon the internal affairs of other countries. The union has said political stability and avoidance of extremist politics is a necessity if applicants are to progress towards EU membership.

But of course that's not to suggest that governments cannot be changed. As Brussels-based analyst Nicholas Whyte of the Center for European Policy Studies recalls, EU founder-member Italy was at one point changing its government about every three months. He says:

"You have to bear in mind that the [EU] accession negotiations are substantially decoupled from who is actually in power, so there is a question of the ability of the negotiating team to actually make agreements in particular chapters [of the negotiations]; [it] does not depend hugely on the stability of the governing coalition."

Whyte says there is no need to overreact to the latest developments in Romania. He notes that a poor showing by governing parties at mid-term local elections is a well-known phenomenon in the West; it's an occasion when people express their frustrations.

Another analyst, John Palmer, who is director of the European Policy Center in Brussels, broadly agrees with Whyte's moderate view. He says:

"Clearly, instability does not help, but the timetable for Romania meeting the conditions for membership is not an immediate one. We're talking about much later in this decade for full membership. Clearly there is much work to be done, and Romania has a long way to go, but I think it's wrong to ignore the areas of progress made."

Analyst Whyte downplays the fear that parties cool on reform could gain power in Romania and thus slow its EU membership. He says that depends entirely on what such parties do when they actually get in government. There are many precedents for parties and individuals acting differently in power than in opposition. He says:

"I can see a scenario perfectly easily where they say, right, let's carry on with the negotiating mandate that's already there, because the machinery is wound up and it is more hassle at this stage to unwind it than to let it keep on going, I mean that's what it comes down to, and that will be a decision by a new Romanian government though, not a decision by the EU, unless they [the government] get in through really objectionable means, with really objectionable rhetoric, like in Austria."

Whyte was referring to the Austrian far-right Freedom Party, whose inclusion in a ruling coalition has led to the imposition of sanctions on that country by EU states.

And what of Bulgaria, will it be "tainted by association" with Romania's troubles? The analysts think not. Palmer says that he believes each country's accession "is and must be judged on its own merits."

In Sofia, Krassen Stanchev, the director of the Institute for Market Economy, says he does not fear a detrimental "packaging" effect involving the two countries either. Stanchev says that while the same EU officials tend to deal with both Bulgaria and Romania, the officials are careful to make distinctions.

"You have some sort of communal view in different departments of the [European] Commission and for cost-cutting purposes in the [EU's country-by-country] monitoring process you have experts who usually cover both countries. But these experts, to the extent I know them, usually differentiate between the countries, and usually they have rather concrete knowledge of the situation in the individual countries." With luck, the latest events will be just a hiccup as Romania and Bulgaria slowly make their way towards the European Union.