- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

BRUSSELS - The admission today of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union boosting the bloc’s membership to 27 nations and almost half a billion people should be a moment for self-congratulatory celebration. But few outside of Bulgaria, Romania and the Brussels beltway are in a mood to toast the accession of the former communist states.

With today’s expansion, the EU gains almost 30 million new citizens and sees its borders stretched eastward to the Black Sea. The new countries already are new NATO members, helping to project stability in a volatile region. And their accession 17 years after they shrugged off more than four decades of communist rule is seen by some as the final nail in the coffin of the Cold War.

“This is a historic decision,” said the president of the center-right European People’s Party, Wilfried Martens, after the two states received the green light to join the EU last month.

“After the accession in 2004 of 10 countries from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean area, the EU is now completing the reunification of the European continent,” he said.

Others supporters vaunt the geostrategic benefits of Bulgaria and Romania’s entry.

Mircea Geoana, chairman of the Romanian Senate’s foreign-affairs committee, told The Washington Times: “As size does indeed matter in international politics, a European Union aiming at the stature of a genuine global power should welcome the accession of Romania, which is the EU member with the longest eastern border and together with Poland and the one of the members with very close relations to the United States.”

At the European Commission’s Brussels headquarters a huge banner has hung for weeks welcoming Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union. The executive body even staged a rock concert in mid-December during which the two countries were added to a giant gingerbread map of the union.

But among ordinary citizens of the existing EU counties, especially the older and richer nations of Western Europe, there is little enthusiasm for the latest expansion.

“There is a striking difference between this enlargement and the festivities surrounding the 2004 expansion,” says Lucia Montanaro-Jankovski, a policy analyst at the European Policy Center think tank in Brussels.

“It has been difficult to persuade EU citizens of the benefits of Bulgaria and Romania’s accession because the two countries are entering the union during a climate of Euro-skepticism and enlargement fatigue. There is a feeling the 10 countries that joined in 2004 haven’t been fully digested, and there are questions about how many more countries the EU can absorb with its current rulebook.”

Expansion opposition

The enlargement of the EU to take in poorer countries on its southern and eastern fringes is generally considered to be the union’s biggest success story, helping to cement democracy and bring prosperity to countries emerging from authoritarian rule.

But while the addition of Malta, Cyprus and eight former communist countries in central Europe was viewed as epoch-making by Europe’s political elites, it was viewed more coolly by ordinary citizens who blame the “big bang” expansion for higher levels of immigration and unemployment.

The sense of an enlargement fatigue is borne out by a recent European Commission opinion poll that shows opponents of further EU expansion almost equaling the number of supporters. In two of the union’s largest countries France and Germany only a third of voters support further enlargement.

EU leaders also expressed their frostiness toward hastily admitting new members at their quarterly summit in Brussels last month. In a clear nod to Bulgaria and Romania, which many EU officials think are not ready to join the union, heads of state agreed not to give would-be members an entry date until they have applied all the bloc’s stringent rules.

“There has been a lot of criticism about Bulgaria and Romania’s lack of preparedness,” says Mrs. Montanaro-Jankovski. “However, there is a feeling that it will be easier to address these shortcomings once they are in the EU.”

The two countries have adopted more than 200,000 pages of EU legislation and carried out major internal reforms in order to be declared fit for membership of the Brussels-based club that started 50 years ago with only six founding states.

Immigration fears

However, there is a widespread feeling inside the European Commission that there are serious shortcomings in the application of EU law especially in judicial and homeland security issues. In the latest Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, Bulgaria ranked 57th and Romania 88th below most Middle Eastern and some African countries out of 163 nations analyzed. Organized crime is also a problem in both new EU members.

There are also fears that the entry of Bulgaria and Romania, where per-capita income is less than $10,000 a year, will lead to a wave of migrants seeking work in Western Europe.

Most EU members have barred Bulgarian and Romanian job seekers from working on their territories, but most of the migrants who wanted to quit the two Balkan states have already left. In Spain alone, there are thought to be more than 800,000 Romanians working on farms and construction sites.

Mr. Geoana, the Romanian senator, blames Western European tabloids for spreading “gross exaggerations and misinterpretations” about his country and says Bucharest has become an “easy scapegoat for those opposing further enlargement of the EU.”

Politicians from the two new member states complain that their people are entering the union as second-class citizens without the right to work or travel freely enjoyed by citizens of other member countries.

They also protest that the stereotype of Bulgaria and Romania as grim, post-communist Balkan backwaters has little in common with the reality of fast-growing states firmly in the mainstream of European culture and history.

Turkey’s application

But in many ways, Bulgaria and Romania are the lucky ones. They are entering the union before they are fully ready to do so. And despite the distinct lack of enthusiasm from many Western Europeans, no country has blocked their accession.

Contrast that with Turkey, which first applied to join the EU more than 40 years ago, has a similar standard of living to Sofia and Bucharest and, as a predominantly Muslim country bordering the Middle East and Caucasus, has an even stronger geostrategic claim to membership.

At last month’s summit, European leaders decided to partially freeze Turkey’s membership bid a little over a year after talks began. If membership negotiations finish successfully and no one predicts this will happen for another decade Ankara’s application will then be submitted to referendums in France and Austria whose voters are the staunchest opponents of Turkey’s entry.

“The more the EU enlarges, the more difficult it will be to get in,” Mrs. Montanaro-Jankovski says.

Supporters of a more tightly knit and deeply integrated European Union argue that the club has to solve its own problems notably agreeing on an updated constitution before it can take in any more members.

But critics of this policy, which include the Bush administration, counter that shutting out Turkey and the western Balkan countries would only create instability on Europe’s eastern flank.

The debate about “widening or deepening” the union, which has been raging in EU circles since Spain, Greece and Portugal joined in the 1980s, is likely to continue long after Bulgaria and Romania’s admission today.

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