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Romania: Bucharest Lagging Behind Sofia In EU Accession Efforts

European Union enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen earlier this week (17 December) promised Romania what he called "special and privileged treatment" in its bid to achieve EU accession. Verheugen's statement came after the weekend's EU summit in Belgium left Romania and Bulgaria off a list of EU candidates likely to join the 15-nation bloc in 2004. Analysts say Bulgaria is slightly more advanced on the reform path than Romania, which has yet to build a functioning market economy, implement vital administrative reforms, or curb widespread corruption.

Prague, 19 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen this week said Romania can count on extra support from the European Union as it seeks to speed up its preparations to join the 15-nation bloc.

Verheugen was speaking in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, where he participated in ceremonies to mark 12 years since the beginning of the violent uprising that eventually led to the overthrow of communism and the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

Drawing parallels with the 1989 uprising, Verheugen urged Romanians to "battle" for EU membership as they had fought to end the communist regime. The European Commission, he added, will aid the fight by developing a stronger and "even better" pre-accession strategy for Romania.

But Verheugen's comments came after European Union leaders at the weekend's Laeken summit left Romania and Bulgaria off a list of EU candidate countries likely to join the bloc in a big-bang enlargement move in 2004.

In a statement issued at the end of the Laeken summit, the EU announced, for the first time, that out of 12 candidate countries -- most from the former communist bloc -- 10 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) are on track to admission in 2004.

That left just two countries off the list: Romania and Bulgaria, both of which have been cited for insufficient progress in reforms. Analysts and EU diplomats say that the two impoverished Balkan states are not likely to join the Union any sooner than 2007.

In Romania, President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase have themselves both indicated that while they are ready to speed up the pace of reforms, they do not expect their nation to be ready to join the EU before 2005 or 2006 at the earliest.

Bulgaria, considered to be slightly more advanced than Romania in its accession preparations, had initially set 2006 as its target for admission. But Bulgarian officials last week indicated they were still hoping to catch up to the 10 countries slated for 2004 entry.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said earlier this month (11 December) in Brussels that his country's progress -- highlighted in a recent (13 November) European Commission report -- led him to believe Bulgaria may still be able to step up efforts and join first-wave entrants in 2004. Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski, who attended the Laeken summit, also indicated he wanted Bulgaria to join the EU earlier than 2006.

But the Bulgarian officials' comments drew a harsh rebuke from Verheugen. The EU enlargement commissioner said last week that Bulgaria would need the magic powers of Harry Potter -- the boy wizard in the best-selling children's books of J.K. Rowling -- to achieve its goal of joining the Union in 2004.

Analysts also agree that neither Bulgaria nor Romania realistically stand a chance of catching up with the rest of the candidate countries before 2004.

Daniel Gros is research director at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS). He told RFE/RL that both countries will need up to five years to overcome their reform hurdles.

"For Bulgaria, certainly, it is just not possible humanly to catch up with the other candidates within a year. But in four to five years, Romania and Bulgaria -- perhaps Bulgaria a bit earlier -- could certainly be at the point at which the other candidate countries are today."

Gros says the two Balkan countries are lagging behind other former communist states because they did not use the last 10 years to adequately implement reforms and establish a functioning market economy.

He notes that Bulgaria has taken some steps forward since the creation of a currency board in 1997, and has also brought its macroeconomic policy under control. But he says the government still needs to clean up the administration and the judiciary.

Bulgarian experts also say it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for their government to catch up with the more advanced countries.

Lachezar Bogdanov, a researcher at the Institute for Market Economics in Sofia, says that although Bulgaria may be able to bring its legislation in line with EU standards before 2004, it will be impossible for the government to meet the structural criteria necessary to close its pre-entry chapters, especially in the economic and environmental fields.

Bogdanov tells RFE/RL that it is the criteria that Bulgaria has yet to meet -- such as functional institutions and property rights protection -- that are the most difficult to change. He says fulfilling these criteria will take a long time.

"Most of the macroeconomic criteria or indicators that are incorporated in the overall evaluation of the economy are more or less fine, but what is lacking here is properly working institutions, property rights protection, contract enforcement, registers, a properly working judicial system. These are institutions that need a lot of time to be changed and to start working."

Romania, unlike fellow Balkan laggard Bulgaria, has not brought forward its target entry date, although it says it wants to join as early as possible.

Despite making a more favorable assessment than it had in previous years, the European Commission still ranked Romania last among the 12 EU candidates, citing the lack of a functioning market economy, corruption and high inflation as the main obstacles on the country's path to joining the Union. The report said vital administrative reforms and measures to curb corruption are needed to accelerate the pace of reform.

Analysts also agree that corruption -- which the report called "a serious and largely unresolved problem" -- is one of Romania's main problems.

British journalist Phelim McAleer, a Bucharest-based correspondent for Britain's "Financial Times," told RFE/RL that corruption in Romania is alleged to be more extensive than in Russia and is largely due to widespread bureaucracy and ambiguous legislation.

"Some people say to me that the corruption is worse than in places such as Russia, only it is cheaper. Corruption here is quite low-level, but it is quite widespread. So they need to tighten up the public administration, they need to change the rules, to reduce bureaucracy. And also one of the biggest problems is that legislation is often ambiguously worded, which means that it is open to interpretation by individual civil servants, who can be persuaded for a small bribe to interpret it in the person's favor."

EU officials acknowledge that Romania's new Social Democrat government has made some progress since assuming power in January, and welcome what they called Romania's "realistic approach" to achieving EU membership.

Just days after pouring cold water over Bulgaria's entry expectations, Verheugen this week hailed what he called "Romania's realistic strategy and realistic time frame."

Verheugen's praise was an apparent reference to Prime Minister Nastase's statement in Laeken that Romania does not expect to join the EU sooner than 2005 or 2006.

Verheugen also said that Romania will benefit from what he called "special and privileged treatment to achieve the accession as soon as possible." But he stopped short of giving any specific detail on what such special treatment might consist of.

However, Gros of the Center for European Policy Studies believes Romania must step up its own efforts to comply with admission criteria, regardless of whether the EU will grant it special treatment. He says privatizing loss-making state enterprises remains one of the main tasks facing Bucharest.

"If they [Romanians] really want to join the EU then they have to do certain things, including privatization. And if they don't want to, then bye-bye. So the EU doesn't have to do anything -- it just has to say 'either you do privatization properly or you don't become an EU member.' The Bulgarians have got the message and they have privatized most of what was to be privatized."

Prime Minister Nastase said this week that next year will be decisive for Romania's bid to speed up preparations and that EU support will be very important. But Nastase also admitted that such support will be possible only if Romania's commitment toward European integration proves sufficiently "serious."