Bulgaria and Romania twenty years later

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Sir Michael Leigh [German Marshall Fund]

Twenty years after Bulgaria and Romania applied for membership in 1995, and almost a decade after their 2007 accession, their people still feel like second class EU citizens, writes Sir Michael Leigh.

The Bulgarian government, in particular, needs to show much greater decisiveness in addressing persistent rule of law problems and in earning the trust of citizens.

Sir Michael Leigh is a Senior Fellow with German Marshall Fund of the United States, and former Director-General for Enlargement, European Commission.

Bulgaria and Romania were accepted as EU members in 2007 largely for geopolitical reasons, even though they could not assume fully the rights and obligations of membership. EU membership was a reward for overthrowing authoritarian rule as it had been in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1980s. Bulgaria duly allowed NATO to use its airspace in the 1999 bombing of the former Yugoslavia to stop “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo by the Milosevic regime. At the same time Bulgaria refused Russian demands for logistical support. British Prime Minister Tony Blair consequently took the lead in pressing for a positive response to their EU applications at the Helsinki European Council in 1999. Romania was strongly supported by France, with which it had long-standing ties.

However, their accession was delayed beyond 2004, when other former communist countries joined, mainly because of the extent of organized crime and corruption as well as problems in the justice system. There were also specific concerns, including nuclear safety in Bulgaria and the protection of children and other vulnerable groups in Romania. Membership could have been postponed one more year to 2008 but, instead, the EU set up a unique process for monitoring rule of law and applying possible sanctions for non-compliance. The monitoring system still operates today after almost a decade of membership.

The latest “cooperation and verification” report on Romania shows considerable improvement. While problems of corruption remain, the anti-corruption authorities have teeth with real authority to investigate, leading to prosecutions and convictions across party lines.  Bulgaria’s report, however, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Commission’s original 1997 opinion on its application for membership. Now, as then, the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary, as well as organized crime and corruption, are cited as major unresolved problems.

Bulgarian politicians from different parties have, indeed, tolerated and benefitted from the “rentier-oligarch” state. But EU rules and laws have had some impact. The Commission cut off certain pre-accession assistance, even after Bulgaria had joined, and continues to push for an end to irregularities, and greater efficiency, in handling EU funds. EU anti-trust rules have made life harder for dominant enterprises established after the fall of communism.

Romania, with its stronger resource base and more differentiated economy, has pulled ahead of Bulgaria in income per capita, after level-pegging under communism. Both economies are now growing, with inflows of funds from EU bodies as well as private sector investment. But more than 20% of the people live below the poverty line in both countries. Over 40% of the population in Romania, and almost half in Bulgaria, are at risk of poverty, according to Caritas Europa.

While both countries have proved loyal NATO allies, Bulgaria, like several older EU member states, has vacillated on issues regarding Russia, including energy supply. Bulgaria and Romania are de facto excluded from the (foundering) Schengen system as long as EU rule of law monitoring is deemed necessary. Romania voted against the EU’s obligatory quota scheme for re-settling refugees arriving in Greece and Italy. Bulgaria has drawn mixed reviews by building a fence, with razor wire and attack dogs, along part of its 250 kilometer frontier with Turkey, in an effort to demonstrate its ability to protect the EU’s external borders.

Twenty years after Bulgaria and Romania applied for membership, and almost a decade after accession, their people still feel like second class EU citizens. The Bulgarian government, in particular, needs to show much greater decisiveness in addressing persistent rule of law problems and in earning the trust of citizens. Opinion poll respondents in both countries welcome EU pressure on their governments.

The EU has learned two broad lessons from the enlargement experience. First, rule of law problems need to be tackled firmly at the start of the accession process not at the end. This approach is now being applied in the Western Balkans and should also be applied to Turkey. Secondly, “local ownership” of reforms in “transition countries” is indispensable if they are to make real inroads into dysfunctional systems that were established under communism and its immediate aftermath.

Outsiders, whether in the EU or NATO, can have only a limited impact in the Western Balkans or in former Soviet states, unless politicians and officials in these countries make a decisive break with crony capitalism and corruption. Faced with multiple crises, and astute Russian pressure, EU leaders are rushing somewhat precipitately to embrace realpolitik. But if they wish to complete the integration of Bulgaria and Romania, and encourage reform in countries to the east, they must take care, in their embrace of geopolitics, not to compromise the principles on which the EU is said to be founded.

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