Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Balkan Reform Signals

There is still uncertainty on whether Bulgaria and Romania will be able to join the European Union by the start of next year or whether they will be given another year to get their respective houses more in order.

That's the message from the European Commission yesterday.

Bulgaria got six different issues that require "urgent attention", and Romania got four of the same level of seriousness.

And by October they must demonstrate dignificant success - otherwise the Commission will recommend that their membership is delayed until 2008.

I think it is good that the Commission is taking a fairly strict approach to this. One should not be able to get into the Union by cutting too many corners. The rules of the game have to be observed.

Add to that the fact that harsh conditions of this sort is actually a way of helping these countries in their reform process.

I talked recently with a very senior politician from Bulgaria who clearly said that this approach was helpful in driving the necessary changes and reforms. If Brussels where to turn a blind eye to the obvious problems in the judiciary and elsewhere, it is dead certain that local opponents of reform will do the same. The result would be bad for everyone concerned.

Although there are those that oppose further enlargement, and see escalating demands on the applicant countries as a way of keeping them out,I do believe that strict observance of the criteria is more likely to pave the way also for future new members.

The "red cards" to Sofia and Bucharest are also important in sending signals to Zagreb and Ankara, as well as - further down the line - Skopje, Belgrade and Sarajevo.

But this signal is only effective as an encouragment to reform if it is the same time made very clear that the door to membership will be open.