Leading article: A timorous welcome to the EU's next members

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The European Commission had a delicate path to negotiate when it came to yesterday's pronouncement on the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Too negative an assessment would have risked provoking resentment and charges of double standards. At worst, one or other country, or both, might simply have decided that there was no point in continuing to reform.

Too positive an assessment, however, would have raised serious questions about the value of setting qualifications for membership at all. Was the EU so set on enlargement that it was prepared to turn a blind eye to endemic corruption, crooked judges and rampant organised crime? And what would be the effect on the European Union as a whole if it admitted two countries that were patently not ready?

In the event, the Commission managed, just, to avoid both these perils by the time-honoured mechanism of delay. Romania and Bulgaria were told that they are on course for full membership, as planned, at the start of next year. But they have both been set specific goals that they must attain in time for an additional review in October. Romania, contrary to expectations, has less far to go than Bulgaria: its shortcomings are largely technical, relating to agriculture and taxation.

Bulgaria has six areas to be tackled, which include fully implementing laws on corruption and money-laundering and showing that it can exercise proper control over EU funds. To address all these issues in a matter of months would be a tall order for any government. It is hard to see how Bulgaria will meet all the conditions without superhuman effort on the part of the Sofia government. To postpone Bulgaria's accession until 2008, however, might discourage further reform.

In the end, it looks likely that both Romania and Bulgaria will be spurred to meet more of their EU obligations, while being admitted to full membership on 1 January 2007. In an ideal world, the EU should have had more leverage. That it does not largely reflects its own questionable judgement in promising admission in 2008 at the very latest. The additional review in October is the best solution in the circumstances.

In one respect, Bulgaria and Romania have been unlucky. By missing the last major enlargement, which brought the Baltic States and most former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact into the European Union, Romania and Bulgaria found themselves at a disadvantage. While it was rightly judged that they would need more time to meet EU conditions than, for instance, the Baltic States, they were not able to ride the wave of euphoria that followed the end of the Cold War. They might justifiably complain that more attention has been paid to the detail of their applications than to those of some of the countries that preceded them.

It was their misfortune, too, that their accession process straddled the failed referendums on the draft EU constitution in France and the Netherlands. The soul-searching these "No" votes precipitated, and the popular reservations about the whole European project they exposed, have made the climate for further enlargement less propitious than it should have been.

All that said, enlargement has been one of the European Union's great unsung successes. And the desire for membership has brought about thoroughly positive changes in the applicant countries, often in a remarkably short period of time. Bulgaria and Romania are no exception. The EU may be going through a period of self-doubt and its mood may seem recalcitrant. But it has a duty to honour its promises, as Bulgaria and Romania have a duty to honour theirs. On 1 January, 2007, or shortly thereafter, the EU will be a union of 27.

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