Europe Reaches Out to the Balkans

Dec 28 2006

Zoltán Dujisin

BRUSSELS, Dec. 28 (IPS) – Twelve years of continuous reform will mean that on Jan. 1 2007 Bulgaria and Romania will become the latest and poorest members of the European Union (EU), amid growing scepticism over enlargement.

Bulgaria’s and Romania’s transition from socialism was marred by political instability and financial crises, and the decade-long Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s, next door, affected the trade and investment climate in the countries.

But Giles Merritt, director of the Brussels-based Friends of Europe think-tank, calls the accession of the two countries “the best insurance policy against a relapse of instability in the Balkans.”

This, despite the fact that “in the eyes of much of public opinion Bulgaria and Romania don’t seem ready.” For Merritt the major challenge will be “fighting the perception that this process has been pushed too far and too quickly.”

During the 2004 enlargement, many feared that with the accession of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus, impoverished eastern Europeans would flock to Western Europe. Similar fears have resurfaced with the latest enlargement.

Romania, a Latin country of 22 million and Bulgaria, a Slavic nation of 7.7 million, were initially meant to join in 2004 with the rest of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) candidates, but the slower pace of reform led the EU to prolong negotiations.

Andrei Tarnea, director of the Romanian Information Centre in Brussels is convinced the newest enlargement will be to the good. “It will replicate the success of previous ones, if not at the public opinion level, in practical terms,” he told IPS.

Despite public concerns, the EU’s approach to enlargement has evolved since 2004. The EU’s accession criteria are continuously updated in accordance with developments in new member states.

The Commission led by José Barroso since 2004 was more demanding by insisting applicants ought to not just adopt legislation, but also implement it. Brussels’ increased exigency towards candidates also arose from the verification that candidate status is more conducive to reform than actual membership.

Bulgaria’s judicial system was subject to constant criticism, as was the country’s failure to bring organised crime and corruption under control. Similarly, there were concerns over Romanian widespread corruption, consumer protection standards and the existence of publicly subsidised strategic enterprises.

But Tarnea is concerned that in a number of areas the EU might be showing “a lack of affinity towards Eastern European specificities.”

“I sometimes wonder whether the West just blames them on the recent communist past, brushing them aside as irrelevant,” he told IPS. “But people in these countries do not believe them irrelevant, because they feel they know this region and its needs better.”

Whereas the west speaks of ‘enlargement fatigue’ to mean institutional and public opinion weariness towards welcoming new members in the EU, largely caused by what Tarnea calls Europe’s “poor communication skills”, in applicant countries and new member states many citizens are fed up with reforms.

Demanded by the EU and presented by governments as ‘inevitable’, reforms were rarely debated and questioned by politicians and the public. Nevertheless, citizens of CEE still hoped the EU would swiftly deliver wealth and prosperity.

Change did not happen overnight, leaving many with a sense of disillusionment and powerlessness which in Bulgaria was exacerbated by domestic politicians, Svetlozar Andreev, a Bulgarian political scientist from the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid told IPS.

“The lack of trust is further accentuated by the fact that the government is declaring high growth rates of the economy, while the salaries and pensions are rising very slowly,” he said.

As a consequence, Andreev believes Bulgarians “withdraw from politics”, but do so drawing a valuable lesson: “Bulgarians are quick learners. We learned from the experience of the CEE states not to expect too much from EU membership, especially in the short run.”

The political scientist says some of the negative features of the 2004 enlargement will be repeated, such as poor capacity to absorb EU funds, and limitations on the free movement of labour.

As with the accessions in 2004, existing member states will impose labour limitations on newcomers. Ireland, Britain and Hungary will set quotas for the number of workers allowed to emigrate from Bulgaria and Romania.

But overall Andreev believes Romania’s and Bulgaria’s accession to be positive. “Bulgaria will remain the poorest country in the EU for many years to come. However, the geopolitical, economic and pure integrationist benefits of including a peripheral Balkan country in the EU outweigh by far the short-term disadvantages of membership,” he told IPS.

After welcoming 12 new members in three years, the EU is likely to slow down its growth. EU officials say future enlargements will have to take into account the organisation’s ‘absorption capacity’.

The institutional structure of the EU, which will now include 27 states, has remained largely unreformed. Since 10 new members joined in 2004 many have questioned the feasibility of such a large union.

A European constitution was proposed to member states to improve the functioning of an enlarged EU but negative results in popular referenda in France and the Netherlands dealt a blow to the EU’s efforts to reform institutionally.

Merritt claims Western public opinion “has turned sour over a variety of things, such as perceptions of globalisation and potential job losses” and that “enlargement often gets the blame for this.” As a result “we are likely to look at a pause” in the process, he said.

Tarnea admits public opinion in Europe is worried, but insists “a Europe without the Eastern European members is more at risk from the negative effects of globalisation.” “Bulgaria and Romania will add to jobs in Europe and increase its competitiveness,” he said.

Croatia and Macedonia are official candidates, and Croatia might join the EU as early as 2010. Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia still hope to stay on track before the EU shuts its doors. Their prospects are more positive than those of predominantly Muslim Turkey.

“The Balkans will be further stabilised and the enlargement perspective for these countries will most probably be advanced due to the integration of Bulgaria and Romania in the Union,” Andreev said.

“However, further enlargements will be another ball game. Countries will be evaluated much more strictly and future waves will not be so massive, but will progress in a case- by-case fashion.” (END/2006)

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