Europe

Bulgaria and Romania to Join the European Union

According to a special survey of Eurobarometer, the European Commission's Public Opinion Analysis sector, only 45 percent of Europeans are in favor of future enlargements, while 42 percent oppose it. (Photo: Valentina Petrova / AFP-Getty Images)

The wait is over: Bulgaria and Romania will become the 26th and the 27th members of the European Union in 2007. On Sept. 26, The European Commission released a report giving the go-ahead to the two countries, while placing strict conditions on the terms of their membership.

"The accession of Bulgaria and Romania will mark an historic achievement: the completion of the fifth enlargement of the European Union, which further pursues the reunification of our European family," said José Manuel Barroso, president of the commission.

The two countries lodged their official applications back in 1995 and are considered technically part of the eastern enlargement. Yet their slow progress in economic and democratic reform marked them as the "laggards" in the eastern European accession race; in 2004, they were left out of the Big Bang Enlargement. Just four months ago, Romania and Bulgaria's admission was still under question, as neither was considered sufficiently prepared to join. Even today serious doubts remain: In the view of Pierre Avril of Le Figaro, the commission report glosses over glaring problems — such as corruption in Bulgaria — in order to get rid of an unwanted burden and fulfill a "decision that has been taken a long time ago."

Bulgaria and Romania will add a combined population of approximately 30 million to the European club. Despite enjoying a robust economic growth, both countries are likely to remain its poorest members for years to come.

Because the commission's "yes" was anticipated, the good news failed to generate much excitement in Bulgaria. As one participant in an online survey in the daily Standart News said a day before the report, "I'm optimistic about the EU [report]. They don't have a choice, and we don't have a choice. They'll let us in."

While EU membership enjoys wide support in Bulgaria, the muted reaction was also a sign that few people hold the illusion that the EU will magically transform the country overnight. In a poll by Dir.bg, a Bulgarian web portal, which asked, "What do you think will change on January 1st 2007?" 37 percent of respondents replied, "It's just another New Year." Only 3.7 percent said they would feel "like a real European."

Tougher Conditions

Bulgaria and Romania face tougher conditions and stricter monitoring than any previous EU candidate. Various safeguarding clauses may be put in effect if they do not meet requirements in areas of concern, primarily in the fight against organized crime and corruption, and in judicial reform. EU farm subsidies may be withdrawn if Sofia and Bucharest do not show the capacity to administer them correctly. Restrictions on food exports, and on access to the aviation market in the case of Bulgaria, are also possible.

The unprecedented level of EU control and possible restrictions gave rise to talk of "second class citizenship" and some finger pointing in Bulgaria.

The harshest criticism came from a member of the opposition, former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, who said that Bulgaria would enter the EU "under quarantine." Despite the good news, ordinary citizens also used the occasion to express their anger with the feeble efforts of the government to meet EU requirements. "This is a resounding slap in the face of our government. But they think it's just a little pinch on the cheek," read a comment in the online edition of Dnevnik.

An article in Kapital, on the other hand, reminded that there is nothing unusual in the monitoring mechanism, which was applied to other recent EU members. "The restrictions are not scary, but they hurt Bulgaria's image abroad," concluded the author.

Many Bulgarians would be the first to acknowledge that crime and corruption are serious problems that have not been addressed properly. In this light, the words of Bridget Tzarnota, Head of Unit for Bulgaria in the commission, correctly switched the focus from the EU to the role of civic action: "In the end, societal pressure is more important [than EU pressure], because things need to change so that every Bulgarian can live in a more secure environment" (Kafene.net).

Continuous EU pressure, which is often credited for sustaining the reform process in Eastern Europe, however, may also be welcome. Bulgarian business analysts, in particular, estimated that the monitoring mechanism is in the best interests of the country. Nevertheless, some commentators voiced fears that the EU's concerns with food and aviation safety, and the possible restrictions in these industries, are thinly disguised protectionist measures.

Immigration Fears

The new expansion has sparked immigration fears that are already running high in EU member states. The debate, stoked by tabloid media, was particularly heated within the U.K., which is one of the few countries that opened its doors to eastern European workers in 2004. An estimated 600,000 migrants have moved to the U.K. over the last two years. Despite reports that the U.K. economy has benefited from this movement, many British taxpayers think that enough is enough. "It's nothing to do with them taking 'our jobs' … The problem with the influx of ALL immigrants coming into the U.K. (particularly the south) is the strain on infrastructure, NHS, housing, resources, and schooling," commented a participant in a BBC survey.

New members, who have complained of restrictions on labor mobility imposed by old members, are now unsure if they will open their doors to poorer newcomers. "The sprit of eastern European solidarity is showing signs of strain," commented EUobserver.com, reporting that Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia have yet to decide if they will accept Bulgarian and Romanian workers on Jan. 1.

EU's Doors Close, for Now

"We caught the last car of the last train," admitted Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev in an interview for 24 Chasa. Indeed, the commission appears set to impose a temporary freeze on future enlargements.

"After the completion of the fifth enlargement, with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, I believe that an institutional settlement should precede any future enlargement. This is the way to ensure that our enlarged union will function in an efficient and harmonious way," said Barroso.

Talk of institutional reform — or, in recent Euro-talk, "absorption capacity" — has accompanied each round of European enlargement. Inevitably, admitting a new member requires some internal adjustments. But there is more: Today EU skepticism runs higher and "enlargement fatigue" has set in deep. According to a special survey of Eurobarometer, the commission's Public Opinion Analysis sector, only 45 percent of Europeans are in favor of future enlargements, while 42 percent oppose it. Among some old members — including Germany, Luxembourg, France, Austria and Finland — opposition to future expansions runs above 60 percent. Albania and Turkey, in particular, are not welcome.

Barroso's announcement is bad news for Croatia and Turkey, both of which started accession negotiations last year. Croatia, which some view as better prepared than Bulgaria and Romania, hopes to join in 2009, which now seems unlikely. Also waiting in line are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro — all have been promised eventual membership.

Arguments for eastern enlargement have always contained a certain moral justification — the idea that the reunification of the "European family" repairs a historical wrong. Yet such language is missing in discussions of the Western Balkans* and Turkey, whose possible admission is usually discussed in terms of security — as a way to encourage reform and ensure stability in the Western Balkans, and as a geopolitical move designed to contain the spread of fundamentalist Islam in the case of Turkey. These are valid arguments, but they lack emotional appeal. With anti-Muslim sentiment growing in Europe, and with the memory of the Yugoslav wars receding, ordinary Europeans may need more convincing of the benefits of future enlargements.

*The Western Balkans (a term introduced by the EU) include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Zornitsa Stoyanova-Yerburgh.

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