Getting ready for EU Irish_Times - 2006/3/22
In just nine months time Bulgaria and Romania are due to join the European Union, according to agreements and a timetable reached with them several years ago. They were qualified by several political and economic conditions. The latest remarks by EU officials this week insist that both countries need to adhere to them, especially on corruption and judicial reform.
Independent reports indicate they have a lot of ground to make up on both counts - so that many expect accession to be delayed for a year.
That would be a pity, since it would reduce the commitment in both states to pursue and complete political reforms. But their leaders have a substantial mountain to climb. A report this week on corruption in Bulgaria by the Centre for the Study of Democracy finds it has increased alarmingly, is widespread in business and politics and is becoming more institutionalised through "friendly circles" which cross-subsidise parties and companies in and out of office. In Romania, it is acknowledged that more progress has been made in tackling corruption, but that the final mile will be difficult. A determined campaign to reform the judiciary is under way, a process also needed in Bulgaria.
Both states have nevertheless undertaken deep economic reform and report relatively strong rates of growth, employment and investment. Their business and political elites see a direct relationship between such progress and the prospect of looming EU membership. The Bulgarian foreign minister said this week that, "If there is a political decision to delay membership just to show that the EU is very tough toward new members, it is not a good idea. That would be very discouraging to the institutions of our two countries and the EU would have two new members much less motivated one year later."
This all makes for a tricky set of judgments on the substance and timing of their EU entry. The political will to accept Romania and Bulgaria as member-states was diminished by the French and Dutch referendum votes against the EU constitutional treaty last year. But so far this has not affected the EU's basic commitment. Since then Croatia has been accepted as a candidate member. It is comparatively well developed economically and politically and aspires to join the EU in association with the other two rather than with the other former Yugoslav states which are forming a queue behind them.
This continuing momentum to enlarge is closely bound up with European political stabilisation and security. It will keep open the debate on the EU constitutional treaty, which was in large part intended to set out the political and institutional values for enlargement.