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EU: Greece's Presidency Stirs Mixed Feelings In Balkan Candidate Countries

Southeast European countries had been hoping the Greek presidency of the European Union, which is ending next month, would boost their EU membership bids. Media reports in EU laggards Romania and Bulgaria have signaled that more support had been expected from Greece, the only Balkan EU member. But officials in those countries have refrained from expressing disappointment with Greece. And, as RFE/RL reports, analysts say Greece did play a positive role in supporting the Balkan countries' efforts toward European integration.

Prague, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Greece's six-month rotating presidency of the European Union ends on 1 July.

Greece's tenure has occurred while the EU is in the process of completing the largest expansion in its history by accepting 10 new members next year -- most of them former communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

Greece had set as one of the goals of its presidency the smooth advancement of the enlargement process and support for the efforts of its Balkan neighbors toward EU integration. And Romania and Bulgaria had been looking toward Greece's help in their efforts to fulfill admission criteria and become EU members by 2007.

The two EU Balkan candidates -- Romania and Bulgaria -- have been the laggards in the enlargement process and were left out of next year's big expansion.

Although no official has openly complained about insufficient support from Greece, Romanian and Bulgarian media have criticized the Greek presidency for failing to cite the names of their countries in the final document of the EU's Athens summit in March, which sealed the admission agreements with the other 10 candidates.

"There is a feeling of frustration, caused by the March [EU] summit [in Greece] where the [EU] admission agreements were signed for the first 10 candidates," says Romanian journalist and political analyst Bogdan Chirieac. "There is a feeling of frustration never expressed by the [Romanian] authorities, but expressed extensively by the media, that Romania and Bulgaria have not been mentioned in the summit's final document. Bucharest officials have tried to explain this, because it is not in their own interest to admit that they suffered a failure there. But I think it is very important that the Greek presidency was not able to support two states close to Greece, from the same region."

Bulgaria is more advanced in reforms and in EU negotiations than Romania, having closed 23 out of 31 "chapters" of the EU's common body of laws, compared to Romania's 17 chapters.

Romania concluded one chapter this year. But Sofia has so far not closed any chapters during the Greek presidency, a fact which has not escaped the attention of the Bulgarian media.

Petio Petkov, a Bulgarian journalist, says, "However, what politicians did not say was said by the Bulgarian media, which noticed that during this period [of the Greek EU presidency, Bulgaria] stalled, and no new chapter was closed during negotiations. The Bulgarian EU Integration Minister Meglena Kuneva had announced the very day Athens was taking over the EU rotating presidency that Sofia is ready to close negotiations on three chapters. Her statement has apparently had no effect, no new chapter having been closed so far."

Greece -- not among Europe's economic or political powerhouses -- was at the helm of the 15-nation bloc at the height of the Iraq crisis, which was marked by acute disagreements between the United States and EU heavyweights France and Germany over the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Romania and Bulgaria were firm supporters of the United States during the Iraq crisis, which prompted a strong warning from French President Jacques Chirac, who said their EU integration could be put at risk by their pro-U.S. stance.

Heather Grabbe, a EU enlargement analyst at the Brussels-based Center for European Reform (CER), says the lack of progress in negotiations could have various causes.

"The slowness of the negotiations is not just Greece's fault. Greece held the presidency, so it set the pace for negotiations, but ultimately it's up to getting the other member states involved, too. And remember that this has been a very difficult period for getting member states to make progress on anything very much to do with foreign policy because of the great crisis over Iraq. Now I've heard all kinds of rumors that negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania -- particularly Bulgaria -- have gone slower because of member states who were angry with [Romania and] Bulgaria's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, their rhetorical support, and there were some attempts to punish them for this. I don't know how much truth is in these rumors, but those kinds of political disturbances can have an impact on the momentum of negotiations. So I think you can't just blame Athens for that outcome," Grabbe says.

Journalist Chirieac says Romanians felt particularly unhappy after Greek media published an opinion poll that showed a majority of Greece's 11 million people did not want Romania in the EU because of its support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

But analyst Grabbe says Greece deserves praise for keeping the Balkans in the limelight during a very difficult time. Grabbe says that consciousness-raising has been a central aspect of the Greek presidency.

She also mentions the positive response the EU and its Greek presidency gave to Croatia's EU application for membership earlier this year.

"Well, Greece has tried to keep the Balkans on the agenda and may be very frustrated because it tried to make the Balkans a centerpiece of the foreign policy part of their agenda. But obviously that agenda got rather hijacked by the Iraq crisis. So it's not surprising that things have gone rather more quiet than they would have liked. But it's also difficult to say exactly what more the EU could have offered. The EU is in no mood to offer accession to a lot more countries at the moment. They responded positively to Croatia's application for membership, which was a very important signal to the rest of the Balkans."

Bulgaria is in the process of shutting down its Kozloduy nuclear plant in compliance with EU regulations. Two of its reactors have already been switched off. Two more are due to be decommissioned in 2006, but Bulgaria wants additional inspections to prove they can be kept in operation until after 2010.

But journalist Petkov says the Bulgarian media suspects Greece is blocking the inspection of the reactors by a commission of European experts.

However, enlargement analyst Grabbe says the Greek presidency has supported the two countries as much as possible. Grabbe says it is up to Romania and Bulgaria to work harder toward fulfilling the EU's admission criteria: "The Greek leadership, particularly the current government, has been very keen on promoting Romania and Bulgaria's accession to the EU. But they're not recognized as ready by the [European] Commission or by most of the other member states, so that obviously affects things. Remember that EU accession is not just a political decision by the union to say that it likes a country or that it wants to have friendly relations with a country."

Grabbe says Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Croatia, have to meet the admission criteria in order to be ready to join the EU. That, Grabbe concludes, involves a huge amount of preparation and, if a country hasn't done this, then it can't join.