Apart from talks on whether transitional measures restricting the access of workers to labour markets should be imposed on Romania and Bulgaria no other major public debate has really ever taken place in the EU on these two countries’ possible membership next year. And to some extent that is understandable.
Romania and Bulgaria are still regarded as part of the last wave of enlargement, when ten countries from Eastern Europe along with Malta and Cyprus joined the Union. Not only the subject of the last enlargement has been consumed, but also given these countries’ size and significance and widespread ignorance their accession to the European Union will never make the headlines. But that might just be a mistake.
Let’s talk geopolitics
This is not just another enlargement. Romania alone is a country of some 22 million inhabitants, more populated than the Baltic States, Hungary and Slovenia put together. Strategically, its location is a blessing. Bordering the Black Sea and its proximity to the regional “hot spots”, Romania could turn into a potential exporter of security and prosperity for the entire region once it joins the Union. Neither should the economic muscles of this Balkan country be underestimated. Its economic expansion is impressive by any standards. With an average of 6% GDP growth for the last 6 years, it grew by 8.4% in 2004 and accelerated again to 7.8% in the second quarter of 2006. If these trends continue, Romania could become a financial hub for its region and an example for the possibility of change in the Balkans.
This is not just another enlargement.
Its enlargement partner, Bulgaria, is not insignificant either. Securing the Bulgarian-Turkish border against trafficking of illicit drugs should be one of the EU’s primary concerns too, not only of the government in Sofia. The sooner Bulgaria joins the European Union the safer its borders and, implicitly, those of the Union, will become.
Ready to enter the EU?
Both countries obviously bring added value to the Union, but are they ready to meet the 2007 deadline? According to the latest evaluations, Romania and Bulgaria are not much further behind than the countries of the previous enlargement at the time of their accession. While corruption (Romania) and organised crime (Bulgaria) remain of great concern for Brussels, impressive progress has been made. Romania’s case is especially worth to be mentioned. Since the new centre-right government came into power in 2005, a special anti-corruption Court has been set up and already filed charges against high-level officials. As a result, Romania is now a much friendlier place to do business with and the signs are already there. The decline in corruption has led to an increase in investment confidence. Last year alone Romania attracted foreign direct investment (FDI) of some six billion Euro and is expected to get another 10 billion in 2006. Bulgaria too had some success, although organised crime is far more difficult to tackle and the results are to be seen in the long run.
For the reasons mentioned above, Romania and Bulgaria should be given the chance of joining the Union, as set in their Accession Treaties, in January 2007.
They might not be 100% ready, but while it won’t make that much difference for the EU 25, it will surely have a decisive impact on the acceleration of reforms in these two countries and on the region as a whole.