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EU: Progress Report Puts Bulgaria Ahead Of Romania, But Says Both Will Join Together

The annual EU progress reports released today on Bulgaria and Romania put Sofia firmly ahead of Bucharest. But the European Commission says there will be no "decoupling" and that both are on track to join the union together in 2007. Romania was granted long-sought market economy status, but with a warning the status will only become permanent next year, and only if ongoing reforms are concluded. The commission also proposed that the two countries be offered similar financial terms for accession as those presented to the 10 candidates slated to join next year.

Brussels, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today poured cold water on Bulgaria's hopes that it could be "decoupled" from Romania on its path to EU membership.

Progress reports issued today on the two countries say Bucharest and Sofia will sign a single joint accession treaty with the EU.

Bulgaria has concluded accession talks on 26 of the 31 negotiating chapters; Romania 20.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen today said the commission reports confirm the "common objective" of the EU and the two countries for accession in 2007. He added that he doesn�t believe "it would be useful to decouple" Bulgaria and Romania and that although one may finish negotiations before the other, both will arrive at the station "at the same time."

"This is a well-established policy of the European Union, that the present process of enlargement is inclusive, and it is our common objective to welcome Romania and Bulgaria as new members together in 2007 and therefore the Commission proposed to foresee a single accession treaty for both countries," Verheugen said.

The reports also fail to strengthen the wording of the two countries' accession prospects offered by EU leaders at the Thessaloniki summit in June this year, when 2007 was said to be "a common objective" rather than an EU imperative. Verheugen today stressed it would "not be useful" to set an ironclad deadline for accession or even the end of accession negotiations, saying too many open questions remain.

However, he noted that in order to organize accession in 2007, the treaty would have to be signed before the end of 2005 and that negotiations must conclude "in due time" before the signing ceremony. He said he "does not exclude" that negotiations could finish "during the lifetime of this commission" -- that is, before November next year. Departing from its usual refined gradations, the commission said Romania "can be considered as a functioning market economy once the good progress made has continued decisively."

Bulgaria�s progress, on the other hand, is acknowledged with the more usual wording that the country "is a functioning market economy."

Verheugen today said the assessment on Romania represents a "very important upgrade," but that it is not the final word: "The formula is a little bit complicated and that has to do with the methodology which is used by economic experts. In simple words, the formula means that, analyzing the structure and the performance of Romania�s economy of today -- Romania is a functioning market economy. But we can testify that Romania is a fully functioning market economy only when the present phase of reform is continued in certain areas, so the final 'certificate' will come next year."

Verheugen said the reforms Romania will have to conclude include privatization, the fight against inflation, fiscal discipline, and "other macroeconomic indicators."

The report says weaknesses in Romania�s legislative process remain and the takeover of EU law suffers as a result. Also, in a number of sectors a serious gap is said to exist between updated laws and the country's ability to implement and enforce them.

The report notes that corruption remains widespread in Romania. It says that although good progress has been made as regards anti-discrimination legislation, child protection, and the protection of national minorities, the implementation of the government�s Roma strategy "needs to continue."

Although Bulgaria did not attain its aim of decoupling from Romania, Verheugen was clearly much more reassuring when recounting the accession prospects for Sofia: "The good news for Bulgaria is that Bulgaria is well on track, that negotiations will continue as foreseen. We will present proposals for a financial package already very early next year, and therefore Bulgaria has a very good chance to conclude the negotiations during the lifetime of the present commission and we make it very clear that we do not see problems for the accession of Bulgaria as foreseen in the year 2007."

He said things "look very positive" for Bulgaria, but cautioned that closed chapters "do not mean everything is clear on the ground." He said many chapters have been closed at talks with Bulgaria as a result of commitments that have yet to be fulfilled, adding that the number of chapters closed never reflects the country's real preparedness.

Verheugen also directly said he does not foresee the "decoupling" of Bulgaria from Romania in the future, saying it would amount to a "major change of policy."

Bulgaria comes in for some specific criticism in the report for the insufficient living conditions of children and mentally disabled people placed in institutions. A new action plan for the integration of Roma receives praise, but the commission notes "sustained effort" is needed to fight discrimination.

The efficiency of Bulgaria's administrative and judicial system is also criticized, and the commission urges the country to complete its privatization program.

The reports on Bulgaria and Romania say both countries will receive EU positions on financial issues such as agriculture, regional aid funds, and budget contribution early next year. Verheugen today said the positions will "use the same principles and methodology" that were used for the present accession countries -- in other words, full access to direct farm aids will be deferred by 10 years after accession, and EU aid contributions will be capped at 4 percent of GDP.