Bulgaria and Romania Urged to Speed Reforms

By Judy Dempsey, International Herald Tribune

The European Union’s top official responsible for enlargement issued a blunt warning Tuesday to Bulgaria and Romania, telling them their membership in the EU in 2007 would be postponed if they did not implement necessary reforms. ”I am proposing to recommend postponing membership if one or both countries cannot implement reform,” Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, said during a meeting in Berlin hosted by the Institute for European Politics and the European Commission. But in contrast to his remarks on Bulgaria and Romania, Rehn, a Finn and former politician, said EU member states should not close the door on Turkey despite increasing skepticism among Europeans toward enlargement. ”Europe needs a stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey that will adopt our values and rule of law,” Rehn said. ”It is in our strategic interests.”

Rehn’s warnings were made after his meetings with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany and Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition conservative Christian Democrats, who is campaigning to oust Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, a Social Democrat, in elections expected in September. Merkel supports the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU despite the slow pace of reforms in both countries, but she opposes granting full EU membership to Turkey, even if Turkey meets all the EU’s conditions. Instead, as she stated in her party’s election manifesto published Monday, the Christian Democrats and their sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, want a ”special partnership of Turkey.” The Christian Democrats said full EU membership of Turkey would undermine the integration of Europe. Many members inside the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union, however, often say the reason why they do not want Turkey admitted as a full EU member is because the EU would be undermined as a ”Christian club.”

Rehn, a staunch defender of enlargement as a tool for exporting security and stability, openly challenged the view that Turkey’s membership in the EU would slow integration. He even questioned what was meant by a ”privileged partnership.” ”Widening and deepening of the EU can continue at the same time or at different paces,” said Rehn, whose country has always supported enlargement and political integration. ”The point is that EU accession is the perspective for Turkey to continue the reforms. Europe needs a stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey that will adopt our values and the rule of law. It is in our own strategic interests.”

As for granting Turkey a privileged or special partnership, Rehn said it already existed. ”There is a customs union for trade and economy,” he said. ”The political dialogue is deepening. Turkey is part of the EU’s crisis management operations in the Balkans. In other words, some would say this already represents a privileged partnership.”

Rehn’s public warnings to Bulgaria and Romania represented a grim reflection of the two strands of skepticism running through many of the 25 EU member states, particularly after the rejection of the EU constitution by France and the Netherlands last month. One strand is directed against more integration, coupled with increasing criticism over the way the commission, as the EU’s executive arm, interferes too much in policy making. The other strand is the growing skepticism toward any future expansion, particularly into Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and the western Balkans, which includes the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Rehn said the recent enlargement in which the EU expanded from 15 to 25 countries and any future ones demanded higher standards. ”European enlargement has been stretched to its limits,” Rehn said. ”There is a need to be very cautious about our new commitments but at the same time stick to our current commitments. Bulgaria and Romania can join the EU in 2007 if they fulfill the conditions.” This is why the issues of corruption and the weak rule of law in Bulgaria and Romania had to be ”addressed to reassure the public,” Rehn said. ”This is where conditionality is important,” he added. ”Corruption is a most problematic issue, whether it be in the Western Balkans or Eastern Balkans. We still have problems with corruption and reform of the judiciary in Bulgaria and Romania. So let’s focus less on commitment and more on delivery.”

Bulgaria and Romania are still hoping to join the EU in 2007, a date agreed on by the 25 member states during their summit last December in Brussels. Five months later, both countries signed the accession treaties even though the commission still had reservations about the pace of reforms in both countries as well as their ability to implement their reforms by 2007. In the past, the commission but particularly the member states that actually make the final decision over whether a country is ready to join or not, often turned a blind eye to issues related to implementation of laws, combating corruption and even the way the structural or regional funds allocated to poor regions were spent. Rehn insisted the commission would issue a monitoring report on both countries next October. Then, either in March or April, it will issue a final decision over whether either was ready to join by 2007, he said.