Bulgaria has said it does not want to be grouped with Romania in European Union accession negotiations, despite the two neighbors' current joint effort to secure an invitation to join NATO. A top Bulgarian official says Bulgaria is "much more advanced" than Romania in its accession talks and teaming with its northern neighbor would hurt its chances of joining the 15-nation bloc sooner. But Bulgaria still faces considerable obstacles in its quest to become an EU member, chiefly because of a dispute with Brussels over the fate of its Soviet-era Kozloduy nuclear plant. Analysts say that despite a slight advance for Sofia in its EU preparations, it is likely Romania and Bulgaria will join the EU together.
Prague, 4 October 20002 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria says it wants to pursue accession into the European Union alone and not together with its neighbor Romania.
Bulgaria's European Affairs Minister Meglena Kuneva has declared that Bulgaria is considerably ahead in its preparations compared to Romania, and that teaming with its northern neighbor would hurt its chances of joining the 15-nation bloc sooner.
Romania and Bulgaria are the only two EU candidates left out of an announced "big bang" enlargement of the bloc scheduled for 2004, when 10 countries are likely to join the EU.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has said that Romania and Bulgaria will be given revised road maps for accession negotiations at an EU summit in December.
But Kuneva told Reuters this week (2 October) there is a "danger" that Bulgaria may be grouped with Romania despite Sofia's achieving what she called "much more advanced reforms."
Kuneva's Romanian counterpart, Hildegard Puwak, said her remarks "lacked fair play" and reaffirmed Bucharest's determination to join the EU by 2007.
Vasile Puscas, Romania's chief EU negotiator, declined to comment on Kuneva's statements. But he told RFE/RL that Romania still favors cooperation on EU integration issues: "I wouldn't want to comment on Bulgaria's desire, because it is Bulgaria's own desire, if indeed this is the case. But I'd like to say that as far as we're concerned, we consider that a partnership for common solutions to common problems is much more of an efficient -- and cheaper -- way to resolve some of the common issues which appear in the accession process. Thus, we will show the European Union that we're capable to cooperate for [the EU's] common interests."
Both Romania and Bulgaria are well behind the other candidates in enlargement preparations, having closed negotiations on the smallest number of chapters of the EU laws body, known as the "acquis communautaire."
Romania, with 28 chapters opened out of a total of 31 and only 13 closed, is trailing behind Bulgaria, which has opened 30 and closed 21 chapters. However, Bulgaria faces an additional obstacle in its accession efforts -- its obsolete, Soviet-era Kozloduy nuclear-power plant, which generates some 40 percent of the country's electricity.
The EU regards four of the plant's six reactors as unsafe. Two are scheduled to close by the end of this year, while the newest two are considered safe. But the EU wants reactors three and four, each of which is more than 20 years old, closed by the end of 2006.
Sofia maintains that after repeated upgrades, the two reactors have also become safe and refuses to close them by the deadline.
Kuneva last month threatened to refuse to sign the energy chapter in the EU negotiations -- thus freezing Bulgaria's accession process -- unless Brussels agrees to reconsider the fate of the two reactors. Analysts say the government's opposition is only meant to show Bulgarians -- who are in favor of keeping the reactors open -- that their government will not give in without a fight.
Dana Armean of the Economist Intelligence Unit, an expert in EU enlargement, told RFE/RL that Sofia will have to cave in if it wants to become an EU member: "In the end, Bulgaria needs to close all the [negotiations] chapters if it wants to accede to the EU. And sooner or later, it will have to concede to EU pressure [in the case of the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant]."
Armean also says the differences in preparations between Romania and Bulgaria remain rather small.
Romania and Bulgaria are still the poorest EU candidates, with average monthly incomes of some $100 and $125, respectively, and both have yet to implement macroeconomic reforms designed to allow sustainable long-term economic growth and turn them into functioning market economies.
Furthermore, both countries are wrangling with widespread corruption, despite having established special bodies to fight sleaze. Analyst Armean told RFE/RL: "Bulgarians have been better at pressing on with economic reform. However, they have to make more efforts in reforming the administration and the administrative capability, the justice system, customs, etc. Compared to Romania, they have been making more progress, and they seem to be more efficient at pressing on with reform. However, both countries are still faced with a lot of bureaucracy and corruption, and I wouldn't imagine either of them would eradicate them in the medium-term, to allow one of them to get ahead of the other in EU accession."
Bulgaria and Romania have had a history of difficult relations in recent years. Most of the disputes have been of a commercial or environmental nature, either regarding the number and location of bridges that should be built across the Danube or air and water pollution along the river.
But relations have improved substantially over the past two to three years, in view of both countries' efforts to gain NATO membership.
Dana Armean of the Economist Intelligence Unit says that the two countries will probably team up together again near the date of EU accession, just as they did in the case of NATO, despite a current souring in relations.
Armean also believes that, despite the EU's stated policy of judging each country individually, Brussels will regard Bulgaria and Romania as a group. She tells RFE/RL: "It will be very difficult for Bulgaria not to be teamed up with Romania, because they are the only two countries that are not quite ready to accede, so they will always be dealt with as a group, for practical reasons. Both countries have their own problems, so it's very unlikely that they will be finishing their negotiations that much sooner, one compared to the other. So it's just a matter of appearing to the population in the country that you as a government are doing everything you can to integrate that particular country earlier than the neighboring country."
Indeed, according to unofficial sources from Brussels, the European Commission is likely to recommend a target date of 2007 for both Romania and Bulgaria to join the EU.