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EU: Hard Work Lies Ahead Of Bulgarian And Romanian Accession

Romania and Bulgaria are increasing efforts this year to move ahead in their accession negotiations with the European Union. The two Balkan neighbors were left out of a 10-country expansion due in 2004. Bulgaria says it wants to conclude the negotiating process before the 2004 enlargement, while Romania's aims are more modest: It is seeking recognition as a functioning market economy. Analysts say both countries have a lot of work to do to meet a proposed 2007 entry date.

Prague, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Both Romania and Bulgaria say one of their main objectives this year is to make progress in accession talks with the European Union.

Romania and Bulgaria were left out of the EU's 10-country enlargement, scheduled for mid-2004. The EU instead has proposed 2007 as a tentative accession date for the two Balkan neighbors.

Both were excluded because of their lack of progress compared with other candidate states. Romania and Bulgaria lagged behind other candidates in the number of chapters of EU law they had negotiated and agreed to harmonize with their own legal codes.

Bulgaria is more advanced in EU negotiations than Romania, having "closed" 23 of 31 such chapters. It says it intends to conclude accession talks by May 2004, when the European bloc will expand from 15 to 25 members.

Bulgaria's European Integration Minister Meglena Kuneva told RFE/RL that speeding up negotiations will help Bulgaria implement the necessary social and economic transformations and simplify the accession process.

"The date 2004, of course, is one of the possibilities, because not only the changes in the country are something very important, but the process of negotiations is as well. Of course, to negotiate with this one commission and with 15 countries is much more comprehensive than to start with a new one and with 25 countries. Nevertheless, I really believe that the newcomers [in the EU] will support us very eagerly," Kuneva said.

The European Commission, in its 2002 country report, recognized Bulgaria as a "functioning market economy," acknowledging the progress made by Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski's government toward market-oriented reforms.

Romania has also made some progress, managing to register economic growth of almost 4 percent last year, but it has so far failed to gain coveted EU recognition as a market economy.

EU enlargement analyst Heather Grabbe of the Brussels-based Center for European Reform (CER) highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the two countries. Grabbe told RFE/RL: "It's quite widely acknowledged in Brussels and also in the national capitals [of the EU member states] that Bulgaria has made a lot of progress in the past few years, and many people expect Bulgaria to be ready to join the EU in 2007. But there are a lot more question marks about Romania, particularly the state of the economy. So there is a sense that both countries have a lot of work to do, but Romania faces a real challenge in terms of its macroeconomic situation, in terms of being able to join a single market and be competitive within it. There's also a lot of questions about border controls and trafficking -- basically justice and home affairs issues, internal security issues -- and I'm sure the EU will put a lot of pressure on Bulgaria and Romania to improve these aspects as well as improving governance more generally in terms of the public administration."

Romania has so far closed only 16 EU chapters, but Bucharest says this year it will concentrate on negotiations on free movement of goods, persons, services and capital, trying to provisionally close these four chapters to obtain recognition as a market economy.

Romania's chief EU negotiator, Vasile Puscas, said: "Regarding a functioning market economy, the macroeconomic performance [in] Romania over the past two years is not sufficient. We'll have to work mostly toward implementing the mechanisms of a functioning market. That's why we will insist on the four chapters of liberties, which are the quintessence of a functioning market economy."

Puscas also said Romania will open negotiations on two more difficult chapters -- environment and agriculture -- in 2003.

But analysts point out that negotiating legal chapters and implementing the changes are two different things, and the latter is often more difficult. Grabbe said Bulgaria has done well at negotiating, but not as well in implementation.

She said Bulgaria "has been going through the chapters quite quickly and it has actually closed a majority of chapters already, but the EU still doesn't regard the implementation as satisfactory and that's where it's going to be hard for Bulgaria, in making sure that implementation is convincing for Brussels and for the member states."

Bulgaria faces an additional obstacle in its accession efforts -- its obsolete 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 have already been closed -- the latest on 1 January. The EU wants the remaining two closed by the end of 2006.

But Sofia maintains that after repeated upgrades, the two reactors are now safe and has asked the EU for a review of the reactors, despite having provisionally closed the energy chapter.

Minister Kuneva said the chapter could be reopened if the review is positive: "We are still waiting for the peer review, which is crucial for us really, the final decision about [Reactors] 3 and 4. Of course, it was not an easy decision for us and I do believe that this peer review will be fair enough and we will have the very sound reasons for the last decision. Of course, the possibility to reopen the chapter if the peer review is quite sure about the safety of 3 and 4, this possibility is still ahead of us."

But Balkan analyst Dana Armean, of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), said the energy sector for Bulgaria -- and agriculture for Romania -- remain hard nuts to crack this year in terms of negotiations.

Armean told RFE/RL: "One of the main [chapters] for Romania would be agriculture, and some of the difficulties that Bulgaria is facing [are] in the energy sector, so those two are particularly problematic -- in Romania's case because the agricultural sector is quite large, much larger than the EU average, and it is from the EU's point of view at an unsustainable level. In Bulgaria, although they have responded by closing down some of the nuclear reactors, the energy sector seems to be quite backward and it will probably lead to some difficulties in negotiations. "

Romania and Bulgaria are two of the poorest countries in Europe, with average monthly incomes of little more than $100 per person.

The EU in its road maps for the two countries has provided for an increase in financial assistance of up to 40 percent until 2006 under the three existing programs -- Phare, Ispa and SAPARD -- with the condition of improving their capacities to absorb and manage the funds.

EU officials have welcomed recent improvements in fund management and effectiveness, especially in Romania.

But the country still has yet to shed suspicions of incompetence and cronyism in managing EU structural adjustment funds.

The Romanian government on 9 January announced it is canceling a $120 million loan from the EU's Investment Bank (EIB) earmarked for modernizing Bucharest's infrastructure and heating system.

The government said the decision was based on "the option of Bucharest inhabitants" to renounce some parts of the project.

But critics said the move was caused by an ongoing dispute between Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu, who is also the leader of one of the main opposition parties, and the government-controlled City Council.