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EU: New Membership Road Map For Lagging Candidates Romania, Bulgaria

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said on 10 September the European Union will present Romania and Bulgaria with a revised program for their enlargement negotiations after 2004. Romania and Bulgaria are the only candidates excluded from the list of countries likely to become EU members in 2004, due to insufficient economic and political reforms. But analysts say Bulgaria has recently made more progress than Romania on the road to accession. Furthermore, Romania's signing of a bilateral agreement with the U.S. to exempt U.S. troops from prosecution by the International Criminal Court has attracted strong criticism from the EU.

Prague, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Guenter Verheugen, the European Union's enlargement commissioner, told the European Parliament on 10 September that the EU will present Romania and Bulgaria with a revised road map for accession negotiations at a summit in December.

Because of slow political and economic reforms, Romania and Bulgaria are the only two EU candidates missing from a list of countries likely to join the 15-member bloc in 2004. The list includes the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta, and Cyprus.

The two countries are well behind in enlargement preparations, having closed negotiations on the smallest number of chapters of the EU legal body, the acquis communautaire.

But Romania, with 27 chapters opened out of a total of 31 and only 13 closed, is even behind Bulgaria, which has opened 30 and closed 21 chapters so far. All the other 10 candidates have opened 30 chapters and closed at least 24.

Both countries have yet to implement macroeconomic reforms designed to allow sustainable long-term economic growth and to eradicate widespread poverty. Romania and Bulgaria are the poorest EU candidates, with average monthly incomes of some $100 and $125, respectively.

While both countries have become relatively stable democracies, Western institutions such as NATO and the EU have repeatedly pointed to corruption as one of the main threats to both Romania's and Bulgaria's political and economic stability. Both countries have established special bodies to tackle corruption. But Verheugen said on 10 September that corruption remains at a very high level, especially in Romania.

Analysts agree that Bulgaria was faster than Romania in achieving some concrete results in its fight against corruption.

Dana Armean of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said such results work in favor of Bulgaria's image. "Bulgaria has been much more vocal in its ability to eradicate corruption, or at least reduce it. They've been carrying out a series of arrests of high-level customs officials, while such a move has not yet happened in Romania. So the Bulgarian government at least projects an image of willingness to tackle corruption, much more than the Romanian government does at the moment," Armean said.

The two countries also have different strategies with regard to the date of accession. Whereas the Bulgarian government seems to be more flexible, Romania has set 2007 as its target date for admission.

Romania's chief EU negotiator, Vasile Puscas, told RFE/RL that the revised road map announced by Verheugen on 10 September must also contain more precise terms and more financial support for the states that will not be part of the first wave of enlargement.

Puscas also urged the EU not to change the conditions for enlargement after the first wave of candidates is absorbed. "Our expectations regard the continuity of the current principles and rules of negotiation for the states which will continue negotiations. We do not want the rules to change during the game. We also deem necessary that the EU comes up with a much clearer timetable, because the candidates, including Romania, must have such a clear timetable in order to allocate rationally and effectively their resources, including budgetary resources," Puscas said.

Commentators say the EU should set precise dates for the admission of the countries left out of the first wave of enlargement to prevent a feeling of general disappointment among their citizens.

However, Armean said it is not the loss of public support for the EU that could put the reform process at risk. "I think it's unlikely that not having a set date for enlargement will affect public opinion in Bulgaria and Romania, mainly because support for enlargement in these countries is the highest among candidate countries, and it's unlikely to plummet. So I think the real danger in Bulgaria and Romania -- perhaps more in Bulgaria than in Romania because of its recent progress and push for enlargement -- is a disheartening of their political elites, because at that point, political reform or economic reform will no longer be sustained," Armean said.

While neither Romania nor Bulgaria will make it into the EU in the first wave, both countries -- due in part to their strategic and military importance for the U.S. in its war against global terrorism -- have been singled out for probable NATO membership later this year.

Romania, in what was seen as an attempt to attract more U.S. support for its NATO bid, signed a bilateral agreement with the U.S. last month that exempts U.S. military personnel on its soil from prosecution by the newly established International Criminal Court, or ICC.

Bucharest is the only EU candidate state so far to sign such an agreement, which most EU members strongly oppose. Romania's decision to sign the accord attracted harsh criticism from European Commission chief Romano Prodi.

Armean said Romania made a diplomatic mistake that Bulgaria avoided. "I think Romania's gesture of signing up not to extradite U.S. soldiers to the ICC was more of a desperate diplomatic gesture to ensure that some step toward international integration will be achieved, because so far, successive governments have failed to reintegrate the country after promising it for 12 years. And it was [only] a diplomatic gaffe in that sense, because, as Bulgaria's case shows, the caution that Sofia is showing in its relations with the EU is definitely useful, and it will be useful in the country's assessment for the EU accession reports that will come out in October," Armean said.

Indeed, Verheugen said on 10 September that Romania's rushed signing of the agreement with the U.S. will be reflected in the October report on the country's progress over the past year.

Puscas said, in turn, that the EU itself has yet to forge a common stance on the ICC issue. "We're obviously very interested in finding out what the EU's position on the ICC issue will be, because if such a common position had existed [when we signed the agreement with the U.S.], the discussion would have had a different course. But there was no common EU position, and we are waiting for such a position to be reached. Only then will we see what course things will take."

Bulgaria, meanwhile, has delayed a decision to sign a similar document with the U.S. Analysts say Sofia, while waiting for a common EU position on the issue, is also hoping that Washington and Brussels will settle their differences regarding the ICC.