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EU: Verheugen Firmly Relegates Bulgaria To Second Wave Of Expansion

Bulgarian officials were barely able to conceal their frustration in Luxembourg yesterday after the European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen told them that Sofia is firmly relegated to the second wave of accession, despite its success at the negotiating table.

Luxembourg, 11 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two months ago, Bulgarian European Affairs Minister Meglena Kuneva proudly predicted that June would witness great strides in her country's preparations for joining the European Union.

Yesterday, Bulgaria delivered on that promise, closing talks on another three chapters of EU law, bringing its tally to 20 out of the 30 currently on the table. The chapters Bulgaria closed are all part of core EU legislation: the free movement of goods, the free movement of people, and taxation. With 20 chapters closed and all 30 open, Bulgaria is a mere two chapters behind first-wave laggard Malta. Poland, for many the key EU candidate, has closed 25 chapters, but was working on 20 as recently as December.

Bulgaria's progress would seem a natural cause for celebration for the EU. Instead, Guenter Verheugen, the EU's enlargement commissioner, used the occasion of an EU meeting in Luxembourg yesterday to pour cold water over Bulgaria's ambitions, indicating the country's accelerated progress is "artificial" and not supported by him. "It makes no sense to 'artificially' open or close [negotiating] chapters when the correspondingly necessary preparations are in reality not there. Consequently, as I have said, the actual speed of future processes is not determined by [the European Commission, but the accession candidates themselves]," Verheugen said.

Verheugen went on to say that the heads of government of both Bulgaria and Romania had told him personally that their countries are aiming to join the EU in 2007. Reeling, Bulgarian officials in Luxembourg were clearly struggling not to respond in kind. Foreign Minister Solomon Passy picked his words with care. "First of all, let me say that we are not trying to artificially speed up negotiations. On the contrary, we believe that sometimes our speed has been in the past years artificially slowed down," Passy said.

Passy is known as one of the sharpest-witted foreign ministers in Eastern Europe, having once memorably described the EU's Laeken summit decision to relegate Bulgaria and Romania to the second wave of enlargement -- behind 10 front-runners -- as paving the way for "10 weddings and two funerals."

Yesterday, Passy went on to say that his country will remain "strictly focused" on the negotiations, which it intends to close in the first half of 2003. He added that, although the actual year of accession is not important at this stage, it will "certainly" be before 2007.

Passy then took a leaf out of the European Commission's book, quoting principles that Verheugen and his colleagues have for years claimed underpin the entire exercise of enlargement. "Our aim is [for] our efforts to be evaluated on their own merits, and, of course, by differentiation. We believe that each country has to be considered as one indivisible entity and every grouping may be counterproductive to the whole process," Passy said.

Passy's government colleague Kuneva observed that any suggestion of an "artificial" acceleration of negotiations is "controversial," given what she described as the "zealous" pursuit by the European Commission of all the relevant conditions and criteria before closing any of the chapters.

Both Passy and Kuneva made a point of saying, however, that the accession negotiations are, first and foremost, essential for Bulgaria's own development. They refused to speculate on why the EU appears intent on discouraging Bulgaria's progress.

Kuneva sidestepped a suggestion that the EU might be unwilling to add to the mounting costs of enlargement, saying simply that Bulgaria has no wish to discuss the "common plans of others which it has not been invited to join."