Bulgaria Worries about EU Entry

By Nicholas Wood, International Herald Tribune

Bulgaria is to hold parliamentary elections Saturday, with its voters keenly aware that whatever government they elect, their chances of joining the European Union in the near future have become more remote. All of the mainstream political parties competing in the election are unified in their aim of achieving European Union membership by Jan. 1, 2007, as scheduled in negotiations. But comments made by leading European politicians suggesting that enlargement of the 25-member bloc should be slowed in the wake of French and Dutch votes rejecting the European constitution have sent shudders through the political elite.

Many now fear Bulgaria’s membership may be delayed by a year or more. Opinion polls predict that the country’s former communists, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, will win the largest number of seats and oust the former King of Bulgaria, Simeon Saxecoburggotski, who has led the government for the last four years.

The suggestion that enlargement could be delayed has intensified claims among parties that they are most capable of implementing the reforms needed to obtain membership on time. The EU enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, recently warned Bulgaria and Romania that unless they accelerated the pace of reforms they risked seeing their applications set back by a year.

Politicians here said there was a genuine commitment to completing reforms – in such areas as the judicial system and the prosecution of organized crime – but they also say that the EU has moved the goal posts. Senior politicians here appear bitter that, having asked Bulgaria and other East European states to implement difficult political and economic reforms, West European countries are not willing to do the same themselves – most notably in the area of farm subsidies – and are instead blaming enlargement for their problems.

“Every country should be judged according to its accomplishments,” said Sergei Stanishev, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, who is tipped to be the country’s next prime minister. “It wouldn’t be fair for the Bulgaria to pay the price of the internal problems of the European Union,” he said in an interview at the party’s last election rally held Thursday night in Sofia.

Were membership to be delayed, the majority of politicians and analysts here say it would have a destabilizing effect in the country. Throughout the past 15 years, many Bulgarians have endured economic hardship as state run businesses have been closed down, people laid off, and price controls abolished in favor of an open market. While Bulgaria has seen strong economic growth (5.4 percent last year), and unemployment levels have dropped from to 13 percent from 18 percent during the last four years, many people appear frustrated about the pace of change, and concerned also that the country is not getting the best deal possible from the EU.

“It’s hard to make ends meet with the money we earn, but I’m not hoping for anything good when we join,” said Maria Nikolova, a 50-year-old stall holder in Sofia’s Zenski Pazar, or Ladies’ Market. Bulgarians earn, on average, 230 lev, or about $142, a month. Another stall holder, Constantin Nikolov, 51, said he believed the EU would at least curb corruption among Bulgarian politicians.

Hostility toward Europe, has emerged on the fringes of an otherwise overtly pro-European election campaign. Senior members of Stanishev’s party have called for the renegotiation of an agreement to shut down two nuclear reactors in a Soviet-built power station. Polls show that many Bulgarian believe the closure will lead to higher electricity prices, or to power cuts. “If Bulgaria’s membership is delayed this question will be put again,” said Rumen Ovcharov, a former energy minister and Socialist member of Parliament.

The rise of Ataka, an ultranationalist party formed just two months ago, is seen by diplomats and mainstream parties as one of greatest causes for concern in Bulgaria’s EU relations. Ataka, which has campaigned with the slogan “Bulgaria for the Bulgarians” and is predicted to win as much as 7 percent of the vote, is suggesting that Bulgaria should withdraw from NATO, and opposes EU membership. Its leader, Volen Siderov, blames the country’s Roma and Turkish minorities for crime and corruption in the country. By delaying membership, mainstream Bulgarian politicians and analysts argue that animosity toward the EU will grow and the momentum for reform would be undermined.

According to Ovcharov: “If the EU tells us you will now have to wait, people will ask why and what do we have to wait for.” “The reality,” said Antoaneta Primatarova, a former deputy foreign minister and the ex-Bulgarian ambassador to the EU, “is that the EU will have to reform.” And, she added, “it will be as painful as was for former communist states.”