Romania and Bulgaria prepare to be the EU’s latest newcomers, but are likely to be the last for some time

SOFIA – Workers sandblast decades of muck and grime off Bulgaria’s imposing Palace of Justice. It’s a fitting metaphor for the country’s mad scramble to clean up rampant corruption and crime before it joins the European Union on January 1. Like neighboring Romania, Bulgaria is in – barely – and the two ex-communist neighbors are likely to be the EU’s last newcomers for a while. Their stumbling efforts to stamp out graft and conflicts of interest, crack down on organized crime and improve food and aviation safety point up the difficulties of getting Europe’s poorest nations to shape up – as well as the risks of taking them into a club suffering from a severe case of «enlargement fatigue.» Relief is palpable on the gritty streets of Sofia, where ordinary Bulgarians like Ivo Raychev realize they’ve just squeaked in. «It was important to catch the train that leaves on January 1, 2007,» said Raychev, a 57-year-old doctor. «The European Union is likely to take a long break in its enlargement policy after this date.» The EU’s chief executive, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, has called for a halt to further expansion after Romania and Bulgaria join. Barroso insists the bloc, which will swell to 27 nations and 480 million citizens in January, first must resolve the stalemate over its stalled constitution, which was designed to make the expanding EU work more effectively. The charter has been in limbo since French and Dutch voters rejected it last year in referendums reflecting widespread unease over growing pains triggered by the EU’s last major expansion in 2004, when it took in 10 newcomers. Key political decisions now require months of negotiations. Barroso and other leaders contend taking in yet more countries – Croatia and its ex-Yugoslav neighbors; former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, and mostly Muslim Turkey – won’t work without a new constitution to streamline the EU’s day-to-day operations. Although Turkey isn’t expected to join for at least another decade, the «Europe is Closed» signs are a blow to stable and relatively prosperous Croatia. The Balkan country, whose stunning Adriatic coastline has made it one of Europe’s premier playgrounds, initially had pushed to join in 2007 along with Romania and Bulgaria, but those hopes were dashed a year ago when the EU put membership talks on ice. It’s now expected to finish its negotiations by 2009, though it’s unclear whether the EU will be ready to admit it even then. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said this week that Croatia will be ready by 2008 and he wants the talks fast-tracked. The chairman of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly called Croatia’s progress «exemplary» and insisted it makes no sense to shut it out. As it is, Bulgaria and Romania will be admitted with some of the toughest terms ever imposed on new members. Because both still fall short of EU standards, they’ll have to report back every six months to prove they’re making progress and could lose a significant chunk of economic aid if they fail to stay on track. «We must be optimistic,» said Viorica Pop, 52, a technician in Romania, which must establish an anti-corruption agency and ensure greater transparency in judicial and home affairs. «We are not backward, but work needs to be done.» Bulgaria’s parliamentary speaker, Georgi Pirinski, said his country will demonstrate to the rest of the EU that it’s «a valuable addition rather than an added burden.» «Having Bulgaria helps achieve the overall aim of the European Union, and that is peace and security,» Pirinski told The Associated Press in an interview. «There is determination that we can turn the corner on some of these challenges.» Foremost among them is Bulgaria’s struggle to gain the upper hand in its fight against organized crime, money laundering and high-level corruption. In the last five years, there have been more than 125 gangland-style shootings and contract killings blamed on turf wars between rival mobsters. At least 10 members of Parliament have been stripped of their immunity to face corruption charges and, in the last few months, criminal proceedings have been launched against six prosecutors, with indictments expected soon. Boris Velchev, the country’s tough-talking prosecutor general, has hired a former Dutch prosecutor to help advise him and purge the ranks of law enforcement officials who are lax or abuse their authority. But Bulgaria, he contends, remains stigmatized by an image of lawlessness gained in the chaotic aftermath of communism’s collapse in 1989. «Combating crime may turn out to be easier than fighting reputations,» Velchev told the AP. «You can quickly deal with crime in a totalitarian state. In a democracy, it takes time.» Interior Minister Rumen Petkov also thinks the EU has the wrong impression about Bulgaria. The country, he said, has significantly tightened security to thwart smugglers and terrorists along the Black Sea – as of January 1, the EU’s easternmost, southernmost and arguably most vulnerable border. «Bulgaria is painted in much darker colors than the actual situation,» he said in an interview. «I’m not saying everything is OK, but some people portray our country in a negative light. We just need to keep on doing our job.»