TCS Daily

Balkan Growing Pains

By T.K. Vogel - May 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Instead of graduating and setting off for a summer on the beach, European Union hopefuls Romania and Bulgaria have been sent to remedial classes by the European Commission. If they want to enter the EU by January 1, 2007, as planned, the two Black Sea republics have to "roll up the shirt sleeves," they were told by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and produce concrete results in several areas where reform has been lagging, especially crime-fighting and anti-corruption measures.

Barroso delivered what he called a "just and carefully calibrated" decision to a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week. The occasion was originally to be an unequivocal recommendation to the EU's heads of government so they could take a definitive decision when they meet in June. But it became increasingly clear in recent weeks that Bulgaria in particular would simply not make the grade.

This presented the Commission with three equally unappealing options. The first was to let the two countries sail through, which would have earned the Commission the wrath of an increasingly enlargement-skeptical home audience. It would also have led to a big post-accession hangover and removed incentives for reform in Sofia and Bucharest -- not to speak of the damage to the EU's credibility with other aspirant countries. The second option was to postpone accession by one year, as foreseen by safeguard clauses in the treaties of accession. But this would have been a slap in the face of eager reformers (especially in Romania, which is ahead of Bulgaria and would have felt unjustly punished for that country's shortcomings). There would have been no incentive whatsoever for further reform since the accession treaties provide for automatic entry in 2008 even if the safeguard clauses are triggered. Moreover, any decision to postpone entry would require, in the case of Bulgaria, unanimity among the 25 member states, an extremely unlikely prospect. A final option was to unbundle the two and decide on the individual merits of each case, which could have produced serious domestic instability in Bulgaria.

Caught between these countervailing pressures and locked in by the EU's commitment, made -- perhaps prematurely? -- in 2005, to admit Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 or 2008 come what may, the Commission took the only realistic way out: it fudged the issue. The two countries would be allowed to enter in 2007, the Commission declared, but only if they fulfilled a number of conditions (six for Bulgaria, four for Romania), notably in the fields of justice and public administration. A final decision by EU member governments would be taken after the Commission's next monitoring report, which will be submitted no later than October. This was meant as "a message of encouragement and confidence," Barroso said. "It is time to roll up the shirt sleeves and deliver the last effort. I am afraid it may shorten the summer holidays for some in the public administration," the chief of the EU's executive told reporters before taking off to Bucharest. "But believe me, it is worth doing it."

This was no doubt the right way out of a conundrum that was of the EU's own making: by setting down an automatic entry date, the EU had given up one of its most successful tools for inducing reform in recalcitrant countries. By re-imposing conditionality in the short term, the Commission dampened the effects of that automaticity. This was one more piece of evidence for Commissioner Olli Rehn's deft handling of the enlargement portfolio, one of the toughest in Brussels today, and for Barroso's considerable salesmanship. Without their tough love, Romania and Bulgaria would very likely not be as advanced in their membership bid as they are today. But this is not just about their entry into a "Europe" that is getting more anxious about enlargement the closer it gets to assuming its final shape with the accession, perhaps by 2015, of the remaining countries in the Western Balkans. It is also about countries that urgently need to reform in order to deliver growth and services to their citizens. Bulgaria and Romania spent way too many years in a quasi-post-Communist limbo, with ex-Communist powerbrokers and new elites calling the shots and preventing real change. Getting into the EU should be the result of domestic change that needs to happen anyway.

But at this point, the "Sofia dilemma" (or is it the "Bulgarian disease"?) looks inescapable and will in all likelihood also afflict future aspirants from the Balkans. The EU's basic approach to enlargement is sound: you reform, we let you in. In order for this conditionality to work, however, the prospect of membership needs to be tangible enough. If it is not, as is the case currently in Serbia or Bosnia, the consequences are stark: Bosnia's parliament just failed to pass constitutional reform needed to get the country into the EU, and Serbia has again failed to muster the political will to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.

Tangible prospects are especially critical at a time of widespread enlargement fatigue among the old member states (what MEP Graham Watson in this week's debate called the "fashionable anxiety about enlargement"). The fickle legislatures of France, the Netherlands, and Germany all still need to ratify the accession treaties for Romania and Bulgaria. It would be a sensation if they refused to do so, but it is yet another hurdle ahead of the accession countries and could become even more of an obstacle for future applicants. But if the membership prospect is too tangible -- with an automatic entry date, for example -- conditionality will no longer work, as Sofia's slackening reform drive showed. Commissioner Rehn's skills will no doubt be in much demand over the coming years -- to chart a way out of the Sofia dilemma for Zagreb, Belgrade, and the others.

The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (, a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung.


1 Comment

A key point missed
by this author is that Bulgaria has already paid its entry dues when the EU extracted from Bulgaria the shutdown of most of its nuclear reactors as a condition of entry. Bulgaria has complied and now the EU is looking for a way out.

A large part of the reason it wants to curtail expansion is with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, the EU will no longer be able to postpone the accession of Turkey to the EU. So, lacking any other courses to take, the EU is simply putting off the day of reckoning with Turkey's admission bid.

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