Romania and Bulgaria were formally invited to open admission talks with the European Union a year ago, but citizens from those two countries are still required to go through a laborious process to get visas to enter the EU. To address growing discontent in the two nations, the EU has announced it will draw up a questionnaire for Romania and Bulgaria to establish whether they are ready to have the visa requirement lifted.
Prague, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago, the European Union formally invited Romania and Bulgaria -- together with a group of other former communist countries -- to open formal admission talks.
The invitation was seen as a significant step toward closer relations that could include eliminating the time-consuming and frustrating process for citizens of the two countries to obtain travel visas to the EU.
But among the 10 Eastern candidate nations today, the EU has visa restrictions only on Romania and Bulgaria. That fact has created increasing unhappiness in both countries. And the issue has now become a difficult political problem for their two governments. Bulgaria is even threatening to withdraw from the EU's Balkan Stability Pact because of the visa restrictions.
This week the EU appeared to be taking the problem into consideration. On Monday, the Union's 15 member-states announced a decision to draw up questionnaires for Bulgaria and Romania to establish whether the two are ready for lifting the visa regime.
Yesterday (Tuesday), the EU said that, depending on the results of the questionnaires, the requirements could be lifted by early next year. The announcement came from French Minister for European Affairs Pierre Moscovici. France currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen says he holds the same view:
"I share the view of the [EU's current French] presidency that it should be possible to have the final decision very early during the Swedish presidency [running from January to June 2001]."
Neither Moscovici nor Verheugen said that the decision based on the questionnaires' results would necessarily be positive. Both said Bulgaria and Romania will be judged on their respective merits. But while Bulgaria was recently praised for its progress in EU accession talks, Romania has been lagging behind the other candidate-states.
EU Justice and Interior ministers are due to draw up the questionnaires in Brussels next week (Nov 30). The EU says the questionnaires are meant to check whether the two are able to comply with the Union's standards for securing their frontiers.
Western countries have said Romania's porous eastern border with Moldova and Ukraine makes it particularly vulnerable to illegal immigrants from former Soviet states and Central Asia.
Bucharest recently announced that, starting in January of next year, full passport requirements for Moldovan nationals will take effect. Currently, Moldovans need only to show an identification card to cross the Romanian border. Western states also complain that Romanian passports are relatively easy to forge.
Romania's chief EU negotiator Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea (head of the European Integration Department in the Foreign Ministry) tells our correspondent that authorities will start issuing new passports early next year. He says the new documents are in compliance with Western standards and are more difficult to forge.
Ciobanu-Dordea says he is not optimistic that the EU will move quickly to lift visa restrictions on Romanians. He predicts it won't be until sometime in 2003 that visa requirements are permanently eased.
"Even though it is very risky to anticipate a deadline, under the most realistic and rigorous conditions, we might expect to benefit from a liberalization of the visa regime in 2003." Ciobanu-Dordea also tells RFE/RL it isn't clear whether the European Commission is considering easing travel restrictions to Romanians on a permanent or temporary basis.
Romania's case may be even more complicated by elections due to be held Sunday (Nov 26). With ex-communist former President Ion Iliescu and his left Social Democracy Party favored to return to power, Romania's already feeble progress toward economic and democratic reform could be slowed.
Ciobanu-Dordea says the next government and the political parties should come up with a firm agenda on the visa issue and pledge funds for concrete measures to secure Romania's borders:
"It would be a very good attitude if the future government, and even all parliamentary parties, will make a firm commitment to adopt a legislative package necessary to solve the [visa] situation, and if the next government will pledge funds to upgrade border crossings."
Meanwhile, the relatively few Romanians who can afford to travel to Western Europe will continue to suffer through the same difficult process in order to obtain a visa.
Our correspondent telephoned Britain's consulate in Bucharest to find out how he could obtain a British visa. He was told he needed either an invitation from a British citizen, or a hotel or plane-ticket reservation -- plus a recent bank statement, proof of employment and the equivalent of $50.
With the necessary papers in hand, the next step would be to wait outside the consulate in Bucharest. That wait -- according to those who have made it -- can last hours, or sometimes days.