Analysis: Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the EU – Postponement, safeguards and the rule of law

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The accession stories of Bulgaria and Romania are an excellent illustration of the EU being caught unawares when making important (legal and political) commitments to two future members while taking in good faith the commitments pledged by the same members-to-be, writes Gergana Noutcheva of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

I. Introduction

On the day before the European Commission’s decision on the fitness of Bulgaria and Romania to become EU members on 1 January 2007 (due to be delivered 16 May 2006), it is becoming increasingly evident that the EU has fallen into its own ‘rhetorical trap’ from which there is no easy way out. Most EU officials and politicians would agree that the governance standards in the two Balkan candidates are not up to EU level yet, but everyone knows that there is not much the EU can do about it at this point. 

The accession stories of Bulgaria and Romania are an excellent illustration of the EU being caught unawares when making important (legal and political) commitments to two future members while taking in good faith the commitments pledged by the same members-tobe. When the EU announced its ‘big-bang’ enlargement decision in 2002, Sofia and Bucharest sought reassurance that they would not be kept waiting for a long time. And they were successful in getting the EU to officially agree to a very concrete accession timetable against promises to improve their judiciary systems and to reduce the level of corruption, among other reforms. 

In 2006, a year before the fixed accession date, the EU is no longer convinced that Bulgaria and Romania qualify to join the club judging by their governance standards only. Corruption and organised crime have not been reined in by either of the two, although Bucharest has recently impressed Brussels with its political courage to take brave last-minute initiatives to that end. To be sure, the situation in the two countries has not become worse in the years following the EU’s decision on their accession. 

The reality, however, is that Bulgaria and Romania may have become EU-compliant on paper only and that the image projected to Brussels by their political leaders differs from the situation on the ground. 

That Brussels is finally waking up to the real facts is not so bad. Better later than never. What is not so good is that the EU finds itself in a trap of its own making. On the one hand, the EU cannot renege on previous pledges. If the EU shirks its own obligations, it would do damage to its own reputation. On the other hand, the EU cannot let two unprepared candidates in without serious costs. If the EU lowers the accession threshold, it would not only threaten its own internal functioning, but it would also send a wrong message to all the other accession hopefuls waiting at the EU door. 

The question is what to do in the remaining months before the end of the year in order to avoid the damage that could be done. In the last months the European Commission has desperately been looking for instruments to regain leverage over the political leaderships in Sofia and Bucharest while realising that it will be politically harmful for the EU to renege on its own commitments. It is in this context that the discussion about the safeguard clauses inserted in the Accession Treaty started. 

To read the article in full, visit the Centre for European Policy Studies website.

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