EU backs Jan. 1 entry date for Romania, Bulgaria

Urges the two countries to advance reforms, fight organized crime, introduce anti-fraud and corruption laws.

eu parliament 88.298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
eu parliament 88.298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
EU leaders on Friday backed bids by Romania and Bulgaria to join the 25-nation bloc next year, but urged the two Balkan countries to speed up essential reforms. Bulgaria, which an EU report last month said was the less prepared of the two, must show results in fighting organized crime, introduce anti-fraud and corruption laws, crack down on money laundering and complete agriculture reforms. Romania must finish setting up agencies for disbursing EU aid to farmers, speed up agricultural reforms and improve its tax collection system to allow proper collection of value added tax. Both countries must "step up their efforts to tackle decisively and without delay the remaining issues of concern," the EU government leaders said in statement at the end of their two-day summit. "The European Council remains convinced that, with the remaining political will, both countries can overcome the deficits to reach the envisaged date of accession on January 1," the statement said. The European Commission will make their final recommendation to EU governments whether to endorse the January 1 date in October after a final round of reviews. Some leaders said it was unrealistic to expect Romania and Bulgaria to make any major progress with only six months remaining. The EU also reminded Turkey that it must normalize relations with Cyprus or risk delaying its entry talks with the bloc, which are expected to last at least a decade. "Any action which could negatively affect the process of peaceful settlement of disputes should be avoided," the EU warned. It also welcomed the recent start of Croatia's detailed membership talks with the bloc, and commended western Balkan countries such as Macedonia and Albania, on making significant steps toward future EU membership. After Croatia's entry, expected in 2009 at the earliest, no further expansion is planned for some time. EU leaders will devote their December summit to defining their capacity to include new members while ensuring the bloc can function, both politically and financially. But several leaders from new member states protested the plan for the EU to define its "absorption capacity," saying it was an artificial concept aimed at keeping Turkey, former Yugoslav republics and Ukraine out of the union. Romania and Bulgaria enjoy strong support among the 10 EU newcomers who joined in 2004. Both were originally also to be part of that enlargement wave, but their entry had been postponed because of a slower pace of reforms. If problems persist, the European Commission may propose withholding EU aid to the two countries even after they join. The EU also could impose so-called "safeguard clauses," or monitoring mechanisms to ensure conditions are met before they have full benefits of EU membership. The clauses would curtail the countries' participation in EU decisions on areas such as justice, home affairs and food safety.