Two more of the former Soviet satellite states, Bulgaria and Romania, are set to join the European Union in 2007. Further expanding the eastern borders of the EU, Bulgaria and Romania will follow in the footsteps of the Baltic Republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), former Warsaw Pact entities (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), two island nations (Malta and Cyprus), and Slovenia – all of whom joined during a massive formal expansion in 2004. The 2007 accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union will put the total number of member states at 27 and up the number of EU citizens by nearly 30 million.
While some critics believe the European Union is growing too quickly, the consensus among EU leaders is that all willing, proven European democracies which meet the stringent requirements should be allowed to join. EU membership expansions – and the reforms required to ensure a successful accession – are seen as a way of stabilizing the continent politically as well as breaking down economic and social barriers without losing national identities.
As part of the accession process, all current EU countries must ratify the treaty that Bulgaria and Romania signed with the European Union in April of 2005. One year later, that process is progressing as expected. National leaders from both of these candidate countries have expressed confidence that the unanimous ratification will be completed without incident.
However, there is concern on the part of the European Commission (EU’s executive body) that Romania and Bulgaria are not quite ready for unconditional accession by January 1, 2007. Corruption in both governments has been explicitly cited, and the problems appear worse in Bulgaria – particularly in the still-evolving judicial system. Although the European Union has threatened to invoke a safeguard clause and warned both Bulgaria and Romania of a membership postponement until 2008, most experts expect that the two countries will join at the start of 2007 with a few caveats. In other words, the EU will move forward with full 2007 membership but will make a few temporary exceptions while any final reforms are carried out.
Compared to just ten years ago, these two democracies have transformed their economies, raised their standards of living, improved their infrastructures, and made headway on human rights issues. As part of the multi-year membership process, Bulgaria and Romania have had to demonstrate their compliance with the so-called Copenhagen Criteria, a set of standards that EU candidate countries must adhere to in order to gain admission to the mega-organization. Criteria include demonstration of free democracy, compliance with rule of law, presence of a well-rooted market economy sturdy enough to handle EU fluctuations, and presence of an acceptable human rights record (including fair treatment of cultural minorities).
It is hoped that Romania in particular will become a model for other countries that need to undertake significant reform in order to be considered for membership (i.e. Macedonia, Turkey, Moldova). While the road has been bumpy at times, the vast majority of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens eagerly support EU membership and the privileges and opportunities it bestows.