EU accession as an encouragement

15. August, 2006

Foto: G. Diezins

Delaying the accession for one year would not m sense from our point of view. Very hard work has been done and is still undergoing, and we need some kind of encouragement. The accession will be exactly that!

Discussion between Zornitza Venkova, First Secretary of the Bulgarian mission to the EU, Viorel Serbanescu, Counsellor/Head of section of the Romanian mission to the EU, and George Dura, research assistant of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

Dace Akule: Both Romania and Bulgaria expressed their willingness to join the EU in 1995, and the negotiations were started in 2000. When we look at Latvia, however, we also expressed our willingness to join the EU in 1995 but we acceded already in 2004. So what were the main reasons why Romania and Bulgaria were lagging behind or did not make such a big progress in comparison to the other candidates?

Zornitza Venkova: It is very simple. For us from the very beginning we had fixed our timetable [for EU accession] and it was 2007. The changes in our country started a little bit later than in the other candidates so it was a question of realism. We wanted to be prepared for a membership in 2007.

Yet, this is not what was played in the media. In the beginning all 12 candidate countries were in one block and then there was the message of ‘10 weddings and 2 funerals’.

Zornitza Venkova: True, there was a lot of speculation in the media. It is true that we were in the accession negotiations for some time together but since 2000 our accession timetable for us was fixed, and it was 2007.

Viorel Serbanescu: At the beginning we have to remember that there was no group of 12 countries. There was one group of countries for the fifth enlargement of the EU, with Romania and Bulgaria included, but from the very beginning there was a splitting in two groups with six countries in each subgroup. Latvia was in the second group of countries that started accession negotiations later, and the first group of countries did so earlier. The Berlin financial framework[1] of the Union was built according to the thinking that only six countries, the members of the first group, would join the EU at the end of 2006, in the current financial framework. Later on, on the principle of regatta – judging each country on its own merits – the possibility of countries from the second group to join the first one was opened. So it was for four of these countries of the second group. The coincidence, and maybe not the coincidence, is that those four countries that were able to catch up were the smallest ones, and not Romania and Bulgaria that together will receive financial access from the EU budget comparable to the one of Poland. So one might think that the pattern of thinking from the beginning was under these circumstances created.

To put it positively, countries like Latvia and Lithuania were able to catch up and move faster because [having] smaller countries means [having] smaller problems, even if they have the same type of problems. Romania also had fixed the target date from the beginning as 2007. But also for these financial reasons – January 2007 is the beginning of the new financial perspective – Bulgaria and Romania said they would join on January 2007, and we are sticking to the schedule.

You said you were realistic in your thinking. Then what were the main internal problems for your countries why the reforms could not be achieved earlier?

Zornitza Venkova: In Bulgaria the changes started quite late, in about 1997. Only then reforms were introduced that brought about economic changes that were really needed. We had a lot of work to be done home, mainly from the economic point of view, and we saw results already from 1999 or 2000. In these three years we really made it because last year we had a surplus in our budget – not a big one but still a surplus, our economic growth is around 5% GDP a year. So I think we are going in the right direction following the targets.

What about corruption and fighting organized crime that comes up in Commission reports, because, of course, these problems are linked to the economic situation but not only. How do you see these problems being solved?

Zornitza Venkova: These are not problems that only we are facing. It is a problem that I am sure you as a Latvian can recognize – your country has problems to solve in this area, too. It is true that things like organized crime, for example, was a problem because there were new trends and new kinds of crimes born which the judiciary system had to get used to fight with. Of course, there are some problems that we still have, and the Commission has pointed to them. We are tackling these problems and we will continue tackling them to get tangible results. Our government yesterday agreed on instructions for 100 concrete things to be done in this field – corruption and organized crime – to fulfil the so-called political criteria. So now we only need to deliver and I hope that we will do so.

Viorel Serbanescu: I’d like to add that immediately after the ten countries finished the accession negotiations, even in the last part of the negotiations, the Commission, the EU and the candidate countries gained a lot of experience from that process. As a result the same criteria were applied to everybody but the intensity of monitoring and applying these criteria continuously increased up to the end of the negotiations for Romania and Bulgaria. So I would say that we are now prepared and checked against higher standards vis-ą-vis the ten countries. This is one aspect. The second one, as I said before, we had our own targets for accession that we will fulfil even with these much stricter conditions.

Talking about corruption and the judicial reforms – we were commended by the Commission for the very significant progress done both in fighting corruption and for the judicial reforms. The measures that we have taken, the laws that have been changed and are applied for fighting corruption and organized crime were even given as examples of one of the strictest legislation in this area, and the fruits of this have been already seen.

Yet, it is only 6 months now[2] until the possible accession date. Would you as an independent expert say that making the 2007 deadline is possible?

George Dura: It depends on what the Commission wants to be – if it wants to apply the criteria very strictly, but then even not all of the ten new member states would have joined the EU in 2004.

The governments of Romania and Bulgaria are working very hard. They have come up with concrete plans of reforms to be implemented. If the Commission considers the efforts that will be made until the next progress report [in September], and after that, then there should be no problem. Commission probably won’t be super strict and the Council will agree that both countries will make the date – provided, of course, that they continue with the reforms in the same speed. They have to make that date whether it is realistic or not, but it is the only plan right now. Nobody is really thinking of delaying accession, unless there is a real reversal of the reform process.

Both countries have different problems, and they only have one problem in common, corruption. If you look at the Commissions monitoring report, it stresses the political problems in Bulgaria, and Romania, too. Fight against corruption came up in both reports but it is a question of political will. In Romania it is there, while in Bulgaria it sometimes is there and sometimes not, and the Commission sees that. So the Commission really wants to see a commitment for high profile cases on corruption – and this does not happen very easily because this takes time, investigation takes time, persecution takes time. So now the two countries need to get their act together in half a year, find some high-ranking corrupt people so they can show to the EU public that they are doing something. That’s what the Commission wants basically. It’s more for a show, more of an image they want to project than real reforms because reforms, of course, will continue after the accession. That is another thing that the Commission wants to make sure now – that reforms will not stop then.

So you’re saying that media are basically still living on speculations that are not true, meaning, that accession in 2007 is decided.

George Dura: Yes, media like this kind of controversy but when you listen to what the diplomats and decision makers of all countries and the EU officials say, nobody speaks of delaying the accession. The delay as such was not a good idea. The Commission even sort of regrets for having ever put that clause in the past. The clause was introduced because of the problem that the accession negotiations ended in 2004 and the accession treaties were signed in 2005 so the accession treaties were signed quite a long time before the actual accession date. The question whether the reforms will be implemented in time, was important.

There was also the question of de-coupling the countries, that Bulgaria might join in 2007, and Romania might join later if that is decided according to the qualified majority voting [in the European Council]. But now there’s no reason for this if both countries continue the reform process.

Viorel Serbanescu: Indeed, the clause was introduced because of the long period of time between the closing of negotiations, the signing of the accession treaties and the actual accession – a little bit more than two years. There were commitments for a longer period of time and the clause was introduced in order to make sure that all the concentration there is available, and that there was no risk for reforms to be stopped.

In theory and even in practice the clause could be applied for Romania with qualified majority voting [in the European Council] but only for 11 conditions that are written in the accession treaty in the justice and home affairs and competition chapters. In the meantime, if we read the Commission reports, all these conditions have been fulfilled so by now there is no reason why the accession of Romania could be delayed with a majority voting. So now it is only a general clause for the postponement of accession for Romania as well as Bulgaria – but then it has to be decided with unanimity. Yet, when we look at the reports from the Commission from May, it is questionable whether there is a critical mass for such a decision. For example, for Romania there are four shortcomings – three in agriculture and one very technical – the implementation of the IT system for taxation. Moreover, the wording of the treaty is very clear – only if there is clear evidence that there is a serious risk that by the time of accession the country in question can not be prepared properly in important number of areas of the acquis, then the accession can be delayed. It is questionable whether that critical mass or problems in important number of areas of acquis are there.

What is Bulgaria’s position on this?

Zornitza Venkova: Delaying the accession for one year would not make sense from our point of view. Very hard work has been done and is still undergoing, and we need some kind of encouragement. The accession will be exactly that! Should the accession not happen in 2007 there will be a very strong de-motivation and there will be a really important loss of time for both sides – the EU and us. Moreover, our plans have been made according to the target date to join in 2007. For example, the deadline for introducing the European standard in meat factories was 15 July 2006. If the 500 Bulgarian factories that are working in this field don’t meet the criteria, they have to close then. One year of delay would not change anything…

… and I guess the meet factories could ask why they were introducing the costly standards if the accession was delayed for a year?

Zornitza Venkova: Yes, that is true.

George Dura: Would you say that de-motivation of political elite might cause political crisis in the countries at some point?

Zornitza Venkova: I would not go that far but anything is possible because, for example, in Bulgaria for the first time in the elections we had this nationalistic party who came out of nowhere. They are not against the EU but it’s a new formation and it is questionable why they could get so many votes. If the accession is delayed, it could reinforce them. I would not say that a delay might lead to a political crisis. But it would not help for the stabilisation of the situation, definitely.

Viorel Serbanescu: Our government, the president and the prime minister from the very beginning of their work said that they work for the accession in 2007. So from this perspective there has never been a plan B. There is a strong determination to continue the progress and we are determined to show more progress on the way. We are confident because we have done so in the last period of time. Our progress was congratulated by everybody, even by the civil society and think tanks. Therefore we are confident in the realistic and the balanced assessment of the Commission done in a very professional way and based on very thorough documentation and monitoring. We are confident that we will solve the pending issues in time and be on the finishing line when expected.

Don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to Bulgaria and Romania that the accession criteria have become stricter because of the past experience of the big bang enlargement?

George Dura: The Commission has announced that it will increase the strictness of the criteria for the next countries in line – Croatia, Macedonia, Turkey, and if we look at the past, the criteria have evolved with time. So it is a normal process and this message is for internal use – the EU has troubles in keeping organized all of its current members so a country has to be really up to certain standards to join so that people [in the EU] could ratify the accession treaty. The EU evolves every day so the criteria evolve, too. Whether it’s fair or not, that’s not relevant.

Zornitza Venkova: It is more difficult to monitor 12 countries than to monitor two. When you monitor just two countries, you have much more time and resources to do that. Therefore the monitoring is stricter although the criteria are the same – because Romania and Bulgaria are still the countries of the 5th enlargement. It is not another enlargement!

George Dura: The Commission has learned a lot on how to monitor and it is much more effective.

Zornitza Venkova: And we have learned from the 10 countries, too, from their accession negotiations, from the monitoring process. When we were about to close one chapter, we looked at what the others had already done – what was possible to negotiate, what was not, what was the position of member states, what were the problems?

Viorel Serbanescu: It is a fact of life that the criteria of monitoring are stricter, and if you look in one corner not only once but twice then perhaps you find something and you may well be more critical because of the past experience. This is a fact of life but we have tried to turn the so-called disadvantages into advantages learning from the past experiences. We are trying to get the added value from these strict criteria, too, that is to be better prepared on the day of accession.

We already mentioned the decoupling. For many years there were talks about the decoupling of the countries, that Bulgaria was trying to get ahead and not wait for Romania’s progress that took more time. Is this something of a past by now or is decoupling still possible, i.e., that one country might join in 2007 and the other in 2008?

Zornitza Venkova: According to the conclusions of the Helsinki summit, each country has to be estimated on its own merits and we think that this principle has to be applied. Yet, this is not a decision that we can take – it is the Commission and the member states that can take it. But our position is that the best would be for both countries to join together for all kinds of practical reasons.

Viorel Serbanescu: We tried to have our own performance as our benchmark – to look in our courtyards, whether we do our homework and what more should be done. There was a perception at some point that Romania was lagging behind. In the meantime we have proved that such a perception is not valid because we closed the negotiations as successfully as Bulgaria. We were always cooperating very well trying to share experience, make the processes move better.

George Dura: Decoupling is not considered seriously, as is not the postponement really – there is no added value there. As for any enlargement, it would be silly to split it once more. In addition, that would cause problems because the accession treaties would have to be ratified again, an intergovernmental conference would have to be called. It would not be workable. I think that everyone – the Commission, the Council – is fed up with the process by now as it has taken a full decade. So all countries in Europe want both countries to get it now, get it over and done with, and work with other topics as the new constitution, the reform of the common agriculture policy, the more urgent matters. So decoupling and postponement is not a good idea, and they know it.

Obviously, some countries are waiting for the Commission report that is why they have moved it to September so that Germany and France can ratify the accession treaties in time.

Viorel Serbanescu: I don’t think that the treaties would have to be negotiated again because all the conditions are already there.

George Dura: I am not promoting decoupling or postponement of enlargement here but in the worst-case scenario that could happen.

Viorel Serbanescu: In the worst-case scenario the world could turn upside down…

Finally, what about the free movement of labour and the restrictions that could be imposed on Bulgaria and Romania? Do you already know which countries would liberalize their markets and which won’t?

Zornitza Venkova: It is exactly the same as with the eight new member states – every member state can decide whether to impose restrictions, and what kind of regime they would undertake. I would not say that there is a danger from the part of Bulgaria that a huge number of people would go abroad. There were some polls made showing that very few people are interested to go to work in the Union. Moreover, for the last two, three years we have the exact opposite movement. People who have been studying and working abroad are going back to Bulgaria, opening up their businesses there. Of course, the best place to live is at home and so many positive reforms have taken place in Bulgaria. Of course, there will be some who will want to go, but not many.

Viorel Serbanescu: We have seen the report recently published by the Commission with regard to the 2004 enlargement. The results of the report say that the enlargement of the EU is a win-win game. That’s the reality! The fears for delocalisation and others [losing jobs] are totally marginal!

We join the Union because we like the principles that the Union is based upon, including the free movement of persons and labour. I am sure that the liberalization of the markets is the main engine of the development for the Union, and also of ensuring the cohesion of the EU. Plus, all these liberties function together, not three without one. So I am confident that we will receive the same treatment as the new ten member states. I also fully share the opinion with the colleague from Bulgaria that there will not be large masses leaving Romania when the labour markets will be opened. I hope that at least some countries will open up from the very beginning.

But the Irish, the British and even representatives from the Czech Republic have said in the media that they might close their labour markets for Bulgarians and Romanians, and Ireland and the UK were the two out of the three countries that opened up their markets in May 2004, so they are the most liberal countries. So my question is – even if the most liberal ones have suggested they could close their markets, what is the message you’re getting from the 25 member states now, whether they will open up or close?

George Dura: I think Finland and Portugal agreed to open up the markets and if the markets will need certain qualified workers, they will open up. Perhaps the UK and Ireland has enough workers from the new member states already and therefore their markets are saturated but in some years they might open up. At some point there will be a domino effect because if you open up for 10 member states, to open up for two more won’t make such a big difference. There were estimates that Romania might see 300 thousand leave the country, Bulgaria – obviously three times less. So it’s not such a big number that could have a massive influence. This is again played on the fears of the EU citizens, but when they’ll see that nothing will happen, they will open up. It’s not like the unemployment rate is high in Bulgaria and Romania so it’s not like people are dying to leave.

Viorel Serbanescu: That’s true. The unemployment rate is low even according to the ILO [International Labour Organization] standards. In addition to that, the high pace of growth inside the country creates more opportunities for new and attractive jobs.

George Dura: People, who wanted to leave, have left already.

[1] See summit conclusions

[2] The discussion took place in June raksts

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