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Bulgaria All Set to Join the EU, Probably

June 16, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

Bulgaria’s completion of membership negotiations with the European Union on Tuesday has paved the way for its entrance into the EU on January 1, 2007. Having jumped this hurdle, there remains only the EU Accession Treaty (to be signed next spring) as the last major bureaucratic formality for Sofia’s joining up with the bloc.

Nevertheless, the EU has reserved the right to defer the entrance if it feels the country is not quite ready by that time.While the EU had agreed on a dual admittance of Bulgaria simultaneously with its neighbors to the north in Romania, the latter is still working on completing its negotiations.

An indignant Bucharest lashed out “unexpectedly” today at the news of Bulgaria’s speedier negotiations, with Foreign Minister Mircea Dan Geoana dismissing them as unnecessarily hurried. However, it has been known for months that Romania was lagging behind in finalizing all parts of the negotiations, and in the view of the EU, the Romanians have been given fair warning. While Bulgaria closed the final 2 of the agreement’s total 31 chapters by Tuesday, Bucharest has still 7 to finish. The latter is still expected to enter together with Bulgaria, however.

Brussels has offered considerable financial aid to Bulgaria (4.4 billion euros from 2007-2009), and on Monday upped this amount by almost 240 million euros. However, Bulgaria’s net benefit will be somewhat smaller, reports BNN, “…because part of the funds will flow in later and the country will have to pay 303 million euros to the bloc in annual membership dues.”

Bulgaria has enjoyed a considerably greater reversal of economic fortunes than have its EU-aspiring Balkan neighbors. The government points to reduced unemployment, tourism gains, increased GDP and other improvements. The IMF has voiced cautious optimism in its latest report.

The government has continued an aggressive marketing campaign to outline opportunities in the country for foreign businessmen. On Monday, 7 major Bulgarian companies were added to the ranks of the European Business Congress.

The country’s national film industry is now set to be privatized, hoping to attract foreign investors with a 95 percent share offering. The long-deferred privatization of state-owned tobacco monopoly Bulgartabac is said to be going “according to schedule,” with a strategy report to be concluded soon and the tender process to begin in July. And the government plans to offer concessions for energizing investment, up to 130 million euros, for developing key airports in the Black Sea tourist hubs of Varna and Burgas.

While these promising signs, as well as the completion of negotiations- some six months earlier than had been anticipated- provided reason for cheer, there remains work to be done. Outstanding reforms still to be completed fall across many sectors, including judicial, administrative, and environmental. Meat and other food processing plants must be upgraded to EU standards as well. And wine producers have their own responsibilities, which some believe cannot be fulfilled so quickly.

And, despite the broad economic growth (5 percent annually anticipated for the next 3 years), some fear that the Bulgarian economy will have to be restructured for EU accession to be realized. UPI reports that inflation jumped from 6.1 to 6.8 percent between April and May, and argues that growth, “…is sucking in imports. The trade deficit last year was 12.5 percent of gross domestic product. Economists do not expect the deficit to contract significantly in the next two years.”

According to BNN, Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha pledged that “…from now on the Bulgarian society will live under European laws and rules and this must apply for all citizens.” However, there is still the reality of pervasive corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria.

Car rental agencies in neighboring Macedonia and Greece usually don’t allow their vehicles to enter Bulgaria, due to its reputation for theft. Powerful mafia bosses controlling the drugs trade have resumed a “turf war” this month, resulting in Godfather-style gun battles and assassinations. The most bizarre saw 2 gunmen dressed in the black robes of Orthodox priests killed 3 and injured 2 in downtown Sofia on June 4.

Earlier this month a major counterfeiting ring was busted, with Europol sweeping across 50 locations in the country and seizing 95,000 euros worth of fake cash.   According to Europol Director Juergen Storbeck, the counterfeit bills were so expertly done that major banks would even be fooled by them. Calling Bulgaria a “major center” for European counterfeiting, Storbeck also claimed that “…more than 400,000 travellers’ cheques, fake visas for the United States, Canada and Greece, false passports and counterfeiting software were also seized.

The Bulgarian Interior Ministry attests that 18 counterfeit printing operations have been discovered since 2001 alone. Police as far away as the FBI in Las Vegas have been kept busy with detecting the artful work of the Bulgarian gangs. This week the American Secret Service and FBI announced plans to open for business in Sofia.

The government has long been equated with cronyism and corruption, and its infamous arms industry has also been plagued with scandals. It was embarrassed recently when Gen. Dimitar Vladimirov, head of the National Bodyguard Service, had to fire 10 of his men– for moonlighting as mafia men in their spare time.

Theoretically, it is still possible that Bulgaria’s actual entrance date into the European Union may be deferred, if it cannot follow through on time with “…commitments it has made during the accession talks,” according to Foreign Minister Simeon Passy. One of the most important of these commitments, reports BNN, “…includes early closures of two Soviet-designed reactors at the country’s only nuclear power plant.” The reactors are set to be closed in 2006 and are subject to “a special protocol” in the EU membership negotiations, said Passy.

It was precisely the issue of this “safeguard clause” that provoked the Romanian government to criticize Sofia for its alleged “rashness.” The essential value of the stipulation, for the EU, is to ensure thatthe aspirant countries stick to their reforms and complete them on time. As its negotiations with the 25-member bloc are now sluggish, Romania feels somewhat vulnerable. However, it is likely that all things considered, Bucharest will have to go along with whatever clause the EU and Bulgaria decide.

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