Bulgaria and Romania are struggling harder than the former communist countries of Central Europe to integrate into the European Union, but a leading French researcher says the decision to take them on board was the right one. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007.
Five years on, there is disappointment both on the side of the EU and among the citizens of the two newcomers, said François Frison-Roche of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris.
"Seen from afar, the situation of Bulgaria and Romania improves," said the French researcher, who has visited both countries on a number of occasions. He conceded, however, that a vast majority of the population could not sense this improvement.
"If I were a pensioner in Bulgaria or Romania, I would say that my country's EU accession has brought very little improvement - if any - in the everyday life. But on a macroeconomic level, both countries look pretty stable, unlike their Greek neighbour," Frison-Roche said.
Bulgaria and Romania are the EU's poorest countries, with a per capita gross national income of €4,460 and €6,440 respectively, according to the World Bank. In comparison, the figure for France is of €34,000 and for Poland €9,480.
Frison-Roche conceded that Bulgaria's stability was a result of very strict monitoring from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the country declared bankruptcy in 1997. For its part, Romania benefited in 2009 from an EU-IMF bailout package of €20 billion, which helped avert a financial crisis.
Some analysts say the two countries were rewarded with EU membership for their support in the 1999 Kosovo war, even though neither was fully prepared.
Asked if Bulgaria and Romania were benefiting from a political momentum at that time, being in fact unprepared to join the EU, Frison-Roche said:
"The decision for Romania's and Bulgaria's accession was more strategic, more geopolitical in a sense. It was better to have these countries on board and influence them in this new capacity, rather than letting them become festering wounds, in the context of the problems of the Western Balkans, which would have contaminated a whole region."
Frison-Roche said the decision to give membership to the two countries was "the good one" despite the challenges. Both countries are still the subject of a European Commission monitoring mechanism put in place to assist their progress in tackling corruption and organised crime (see background).
Mentality and image problem
He said, however, that in Bulgaria and Romania there was a kind of 'mentality problem' as the EU was seen as a big brother with an open wallet from where the younger brothers could help themselves.
"Now Bulgarians and Romanians have learned that there is no easy money with the EU," Frison-Roche said.
Nearly €20 billion was set aside for Romania over the 2007-2013 period from the so-called cohesion funds, and some €6.7 billion for Bulgaria. However, as a result of purported mismanagement and corruption, Romania has been able to absorb only 3.5% of the funds available, with Bulgaria doing marginally better at 18%.
In comparison, the Central European countries that joined the EU in 2004 have from the beginning "played by the rules" and committed to real reform, while no such political will has ever prevailed in Sofia and Bucharest, Frison-Roche said.
Bulgaria and Romania never tried to get organised to put in place the administration needed to deal with EU funds, he said.
"They tried to do it the Bulgarian or the Romanian way – we will cobble something, we will do it our way, it is always possible to get what you want by giving a small bribe – but no, it didn't work that way," Frison-Roche said, adding that the Commission and its anti-fraud office OLAF had played well their role with respect to Sofia and Bucharest in this context.
Bulgaria and Romania suffer from an image problem - they are often linked to prostitution and crime in the Western media - the French researcher said. Settlements of Roma from the two newest EU countries in Western cities are also a testimony of the dismal situation for this minority, he added.