EU warns Sofia and Bucharest

BUCHAREST – The European Union’s warning to Bulgaria and Romania that they must speed up reforms or see their entry to the bloc set back a year represents a toughening of its attitude to EU aspirants, EU diplomats said yesterday. The two Balkan neighbors were cautioned by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on Monday that failure to complete a long list of key reforms on time would push the date back to 2008. Both countries have struggled with endemic corruption, crime and other problems since communism collapsed in 1989. Brussels has agreed to let them in on January 1, 2007 but with a safeguard clause of a one-year delay if they are not ready. EU diplomats and analysts said the latest warnings made clear that enlargement fatigue in Europe had made the EU less forgiving to shortcomings than a year ago and that both states faced a tough task in convincing Brussels they deserved to join. «Nobody’s moving the goalposts, but time is marching on and there is perhaps a less forgiving political climate,» said a senior EU diplomat. «The political background in the EU means that it’s that much more important that there is nothing to reproach Romania or Bulgaria for.» EU doubts over future expansion emerged after French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution. With gross domestic product per capita at a third of the EU average, Romania and Bulgaria form the EU’s second eastward enlargement. Turkey is waiting in the wings. Alarm «The risk of delay is rising,» said Ognyan Shentov, head of Sofia’s Center for the Study of Democracy. «Judging the situation in the EU and reading between the lines (of the two warnings), unfortunately this is very alarming news.» Other analysts said the statements may have been meant as last-minute pressure on the two countries to pass a wave of laws and other measures ahead of a crucial October 25 report. The report is seen as the milestone by which both countries will be judged as potential member states next spring. The EU will evaluate progress on areas such as justice, agriculture, competition and the environment. The body had already sent the two countries letters about these issues in June. Romania, riddled with chronic corruption, inefficient courts, primitive agriculture and a polluted environment, has been slow to reform but an eight-month old centrist government appears more determined to effect real change. Bulgaria has been praised for tackling similar problems faster but a seven-week political stalemate after inconclusive elections last June has held back legislation and organized crime remains a top concern. «We are still working on the draft reports but the nearer you get, the less time you have to achieve what hasn’t been achieved,» an EU official said.