Mixed message for EU on Balkan expansion Intrnl_Herld_Tribune - 2006/4/4
BERLIN
Olli Rehn, the European Union's enlargement commissioner, went to a closed-door meeting at
the European Parliament on Monday night with a mixed message: Bulgaria and Romania are doing their best to prepare for EU membership next January, but the jury is still out on whether they will be ready to join.

EU sources said Rehn would tell Parliament's foreign affairs committee that if the two former
Communist Balkan countries were admitted, enlarging the bloc to 27 members, there would be plenty of safeguard clauses to prevent backsliding in key areas, like justice. The sources, who declined to be named, said EU officials who had visited both countries recently reported that there were still problems.

Despite enlargement fatigue among some governments, most EU countries favor membership for Bulgaria and Romania. Seventeen of the 25 member states have already ratified the two countries' treaties, and four more are preparing to do so. France, Germany, Austria and Denmark have postponed a decision on ratification until after May 16, when Rehn issues his report on whether to admit the countries in January or postpone their accession.

The fact that the committee meeting Monday was held behind closed doors reflected unease not only over the prospect of a new EU enlargement just nine months from now, but also over the situation of the prospective new members.

Romania and Bulgaria have been much slower in making the transition from the one-party state to democratic institutions rooted in the rule of law than were the eight East European countries that joined the EU in May 2004. The slow pace of reform has allowed corruption, crime and human trafficking to flourish; these are Rehn's biggest concerns.

Boyko Todorov, program director at the Center for the Study of Democracy, in Sofia, said the transition was slower and different in Romanian and Bulgaria for various reasons.

"You can blame many things," he said, "including the Yugoslav war of the 1990s, which nearly destroyed our economies, the legacy of the Ceausescu era in Romania, the one-party state in Bulgaria and the fledgling civil societies which were not strong enough to pressure their governments to introduce reforms."

In the 1990s, parallel systems of government started to emerge, with corruption and a shadow economy preventing the rule of law from taking hold, Todorov said.

"The existence of corruption reached the top of the political class," he continued. "Ministers
were bribed for preventing competition or reforms. Corruption held back our development."

Another reason for the slow pace of reform, Todorov said, "was that we were far away from Europe."

"We became isolated," he added. "Along with the countries of the western Balkans, we became Europe's black hole."

With this enlargement, the EU Commission says it wants to close part of this black hole, and at a later stage the rest of it when the west Balkan countries of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro join the EU.

Krisztina Nagy, spokeswoman for Rehn, said bringing Bulgaria and Romania into the Union was about "Europe's security and stability and Europe having safe borders."

"It is in the interests of the EU that these countries catch up," she said. "This enlargement is about the EU finishing off what it started when the Cold War ended in 1989, namely reuniting
Europe. In ways, it is about dealing with this black hole."

Nevertheless, EU governments continue to be deeply worried about the problems that persist in both countries.

George Schöpflin, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said: "Both countries continue to have serious problems of corruption and judicial reform."

Schöpflin, a professor of political science who specializes in Eastern Europe, said the
transition in Bulgaria and Romania has been slow because, "There was a lack of political will. Over time, negative practices became deeply entrenched and ingrained. Anyone prepared to tackle them would lose out heavily."

The ministers in charge of European integration in Bulgaria and Romania blame the former Communist regimes for the slow transition to a democracy based on the rule of law and strong institutions independent of the state.

They also insist that their countries have done everything possible to reform the judiciary and stamp out corruption in order to meet the January 2007 deadline. "We will be in a position to fulfill the criteria for membership and stick to our obligations," said Bulgaria's European minister, Meglena Kouneva. "But if you ask me, our sticking point is deepening the reforms in our own minds, in our every day life."

Her Romanian counterpart, Anca Boagiu, said the transition was so long and difficult because the old guard remained in power after the veteran dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was ousted in December 1989 and executed. "The old Communists were almost everywhere," Boagiu said. "But finally the political class is changing. The fight against corruption has become inclusive in a way that no one is above the law."

Rehn has already said that enlargement could be postponed for a year if the European Commission and the member states were convinced that either country needed more time to
implement reforms, particularly in the judiciary.

There are suggestions, too, that if these countries were to join in January but still had major reforms to implement, the EU would refuse to recognize certain court verdicts until the
judiciary met EU standards.

Kouneva and Boagiu said any delay in joining could postpone reforms or create a Euro-skeptic backlash. "There is a real sense of urgency to join because we can no longer postpone our own lives," Kouneva said. "The 1990s were written off in terms of introducing
reforms."

Boagiu said simply: "We have no plan B."


Author: Judy Dempsey

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