Romania and Bulgaria given EU go-ahead

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The Independent Online

Romania and Bulgaria have been given a grudging go-ahead to join the EU in January, marking the final chapter of a historic expansion to bring former Warsaw Pact countries into the Western fold.

However a report from the European Commission, released yesterday, recognised that both countries needed to introduce significant reform programmes and laid down a framework for scrutiny backed by the possible sanction of withholding EU subsidies.

The enlargement approved yesterday by the European Commission will be the last for several years - the next country in the queue, Croatia, has been warned that it must wait until the EU has solved its constitutional impasse over internal rules.

The Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, put the most positive gloss on the decision, saying it "will mark a historic achievement, the completion of the fifth enlargement of the EU which further pursues the reunification of our European family".

Behind the rhetoric, yesterday's formal report recognises that Bulgaria is probably the worst-prepared country to be admitted to the EU. The Commission listed a host of well-chronicled weaknesses, from trafficking of babies to corruption. It also added a threat to ban Bulgaria's airlines from EU airspace because of safety fears.

EU leaders had threatened to delay the accession of the two countries by a year but officials decided it would have been counter-productive. Instead, the Commission laid down the toughest-ever series of potential sanctions held in reserve against the two countries if they fail to maintain the momentum of reform.

These include a special mechanism to check on progress in judicial reform and the fight against organised crime and corruption, laying down six "benchmarks" for Bulgaria and four for Romania. Failure to satisfy the demands could mean that other European countries would be spared the obligation to recognise legal judgments from Romania and Bulgaria.

EU officials remain concerned about the two nations' ability to distribute multimillion-euro farm subsidies and are prepared to keep payments back. In both countries there are worries about whether a system to administer farm payments will be working properly by January. Concerns about veterinary standards could lead to agricultural export bans.

Yesterday's document highlights corruption in Bulgaria, saying that the country has managed "few concrete examples of investigations or prosecution or charges of high-level corruption".

Meanwhile, there have been "no successful prosecutions for money laundering" and the number of cases related to organised crime were low. "Contract killings of persons rarely result in successful investigations and prosecutions," it says, adding: "Trafficking of new-born babies, involving pregnant women giving birth abroad, has not been halted."

Each EU country can decide whether to delay admitting Romanian and Bulgarian workers into its labour markets for a maximum of seven years. The British Government is moving towards a "points system". Details of the scheme, which would only allow in people who can demonstrate they are highly qualified or have skills that are in high demand, will be announced by the end of October.

Liam Byrne, the Immigration minister, said yesterday that the Government believed there was "a case for only very gradual access". He said its attitude to the previous enlargement in 2004 had boosted the economy, but added: "We think the circumstances are different this time round and we think that is why the policy has got to be different this time." Last week John Reid, the Home Secretary, said that immigration from the two countries would need to be "carefully managed".

The stumbling blocks

Bulgaria

Problem 1: Corruption. Affects public administration including tax collection, border controls and local government. Recommended programme of legal reforms has not been completed.

Possible sanction: Court judgments and legal warrants may not be recognised by the rest of the EU.

Problem 2: Organised crime. Few successful prosecutions and little confiscation of criminal assets. Money laundering and contract killings - no successful prosecutions. Human trafficking, including trade in newborn babies and pregnant women.

Possible sanction: Court judgments and warrants may not be recognised by rest of EU.

Problem 3: Poor standards of safety in the country's aviation sector.

Sanction: Aircraft could be banned from EU.

Problem 4: Food hygiene. Swine fever and mad cow disease remain a concern in agriculture.

Possible sanction: Keep ban on meat exports to the rest of the EU.

Problem 5: System may not be in place to administer farm subsidies.

Possible sanction: EU payments could be withheld.

Romania

Problem 1: Corruption endemic from local administration to the highest levels of government; recommended programme of legal reforms has yet to be completed.

Possible sanction: Court judgments and warrants may not be recognised by the rest of the European Union.

Problem 2: System to administer EU farm subsidies may not be in place.

Possible sanction: EU payments could be withheld.

Problem 3: Poor food hygiene: swine fever and mad cow disease remain a problem in agriculture.

Possible sanction: Keep ban on meat exports to the rest of the EU.

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