Balkan hopefuls in the wings

SOFIA – Bulgaria and Romania hope to cross the European Union’s threshold in 2007 but fear East European states that join earlier may slam the door in their faces. The EU should wrap up talks at a December 12-13 summit in Copenhagen for admitting 10 mostly East European members on May 1, 2004, adding 75 million poorer people to its 370 million population. But Romania and Bulgaria must wait until 2007 at the earliest. «The first enlargement is going to determine more than anything Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession chances,» said Carlin Doyle, an analyst at Oxford Economic Forecasting. Newcomers Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia have a smaller combined GDP than the Netherlands. The Balkan candidates, where wages average $100 a month, are even poorer and further away than other Eastern Europeans from major European capitals. «It could go very badly; that’s a lot to digest. A lot could go wrong and could slow things down,» Dana Allin of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies told Reuters. The EU has given Romania and Bulgaria January 1, 2007 as their target entry date. Croatia, a former Yugoslav republic which has not even begun negotiations, may be grouped with the two other states if it solves its political problems. But fears are growing in Sofia and Bucharest that political commitment to expansion will wane after 2004 and the EU may prevaricate about giving them a fixed road map in Copenhagen. «Bulgaria with 8 million people would not be a big drain on the EU budget,» said a senior government official in Sofia. «But I’m afraid they have nothing to lose if they keep us out.» Bulgaria’s consumer market is equal to that of Lyon in France. Romania, whose population is nearly three times bigger than Bulgaria’s and would cost more to digest, recently urged Sofia to join it in insisting that EU leaders in Copenhagen set 2007 as a firm date for their membership. «It all comes down to the EU budget and who can afford what in 2006 (during talks on the EU’s new budgetary round). If Poland is suddenly threatened with becoming a net contributor, it might try to hamper further expansion,» Doyle said. Uncertainty over when Bulgaria and Romania might join could be in Croatia’s favor, diplomats say. While Bulgaria has closed 23 chapters – or policy areas – in entry talks with the EU, Romania has closed only 15. «Why should small Bulgaria carry the Romanians on its back? I wish it were the opposite. They are the bigger country, they should pull us,» said a Cabinet official in Sofia. But although the Bulgarian economy grew by 4.3 percent in January-June, it has yet to translate into higher living standards. Almost one in five Bulgarians is out of work and wages are among the lowest in Europe. Romania has a smaller unemployment rate of 8.2 percent but its economic credibility in the West is not high. Unlike Sofia, which has been abiding by IMF-prescribed measures, Bucharest’s ruling ex-communists have been hesitant to put a lid on state wages and shed jobs at ailing industries. «The weakest point is the contradictory and inefficient character of domestic reform,» said Dorel Sandor, director of Romania’s Center for Political Studies and Comparative Analysis. While Bulgaria and Romania have mainly economic illnesses to cure, Croatia has to prove it is a stable democracy and overcome the legacy of its 1991-95 war of independence from Yugoslavia to clear its way to the EU, analysts say. Turkey is already an official EU candidate, and is pushing hard to be allowed to start formal entry talks. But it faces deep suspicion of its human rights record and anxiety in the West over whether it should ever be allowed into the bloc. (1) Additional reporting by Antonia Oprita in Bucharest and Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb.

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