Romania, Bulgaria to join EU in 2007 under tough terms
Nations urged to make progress on crime, justice
BUCHAREST, Romania -- Romania and Bulgaria won clearance yesterday to join the European Union on Jan. 1, capping an arduous journey from the chaos of communism's collapse but still facing some of the toughest terms ever for membership in the bloc.
The recommendation from the EU's administrative body to add the two nations was expected to be the last for some time, leaving Turkey, Croatia, and other hopefuls on the sideline.
EU membership, if formally approved as expected next month, will be a lucrative prize for both Romania and Bulgaria -- two of Europe's poorest and most corrupt countries -- rewarding them for a struggle over a decade and a half to forge open democracies and market economies.
``We will enter a period of certainty. Romanians will be European Union citizens like the Britons, the French, and the Germans, with the same rights and the same obligations," Prime Minister Calin Popecu Tariceanu said after the EU Commission declared the two Balkan neighbors ready to join the 25-nation bloc.
Bulgaria's premier, Sergei Stanishev, hailed the decision as ``the final fall of the Berlin Wall."
But the mood was muted. The EU report said both countries still fall short of Western standards and urged the bloc to make economic aid conditional on continued progress in stamping out corruption, cracking down on organized crime, improving justice, and ensuring better food and aviation safety.
Both countries will have to report back to the EU every six months to make certain they stay on track.
``It would be a typical Romanian mistake to say we have our bags already in the cart and we no longer have obligations," Tariceanu cautioned. ``I promised the Europeans that we would fulfill our pledges."
And workers from Bulgaria and Romania also will face restrictions in gaining access to other EU markets. Britain, Sweden, and Ireland, which opened the door to workers from 10 states that joined the bloc in 2004, are likely to set the strictest conditions.
Britain has seen about 300,000 Poles flood into the country since the last expansion -- a development that has helped invigorate the economy but is rapidly leading to pressures to close the door to immigrants.
If leaders of the EU nations sign off on the proposed enlargement in October, the bloc will expand to 27 nations and boost its combined population by 30 million to 480 million citizens.
Four countries -- France, Germany, Denmark, and Belgium -- have yet to ratify the entry of Romania, a country of 22 million, and Bulgaria, with 8 million, but are expected to do so soon.
Membership in the EU means Romanians and Bulgarians will be eligible for farm aid and other economic assistance, speeding efforts to raise living standards in a corner of Europe rich in natural resources but exploited by decades of totalitarian rule.
Both nations -- staunch US allies that have sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan -- shook off communism in 1989. Since then, they have struggled to eradicate organized crime and corruption that fed a lucrative Soviet-era black market and expanded in the ensuing political and economic vacuum.
``Any illusion that once you enter the European Union, wealth will come by itself, cannot be anything but a grave error," Romanian President Traian Basescu warned yesterday. ``We have to get used to the idea that we are living in an environment which continuously calls for performance."
Many Bulgarians hope EU membership will help the push toward more law and order.
``I hope that a lot of things will go better -- better legislation, decrease in criminality, corruption," said Vladimir Bostanov, a government worker in the capital, Sofia. ``If we could do this alone, we would have done it already, but since we haven't done it so far, we do apparently need some help."
The countries' struggles and delays in meeting EU entry rules have renewed calls within the bloc to put off further enlargement.