Bulgaria wary of becoming enlargement fatigue scapegoat
Bulgarian prime minister Sergei Stanishev has expressed concern that Brussels may impose harsh sanctions against his country after EU accession only to make Bulgarian membership of the bloc "sellable" to a sceptical EU public.
The European Commission is currently drawing up a key report, due out on 26 September, which could recommend imposing tough so-called "safeguard measures" on Sofia even after it enters the EU as planned in January.
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The commission could for example temporarily suspend recognition of Bulgarian court verdicts, or withhold EU fund handouts to Bulgaria, if Sofia's efforts to fight crime and corruption are deemed insufficient.
But Mr Stanishev told Brussels journalists on Wednesday (6 September) "The question is: is it more important to put in place measures and instruments which will help the development of reforms, or simply to make accession sellable to public opinion in certain European countries?"
Suggesting that his country might become a victim of the current enlargement blues in the EU, he highlighted that "public opinion is much more sceptical towards enlargement" than ahead of the EU's 2004 enlargement to take on ten new members.
"Areas such as crime and corruption are highly sensitive to public opinion," he added.
The Bulgarian leader stressed that his country was about to finalise "100%" of a to-do list it had received from Brussels before the summer on the so-called "red flag" areas of organised crime, high-level sleaze and the functioning of the judiciary.
"Please do not think reforms will be suspended after the 26th of September," he added.
In this month's commission report, both Bulgaria and fellow EU hopeful Romania are likely to avert the worst-case scenario of a one-year postponement of accession until January 2008.
"From the discussions I have had, joining in January 2007 now looks to be a realistic goal," Mr Stanishev told reporters after meeting commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on Tuesday.
But the commission, still unhappy with Sofia's progress in tackling corruption and crime, is likely to propose some form of post-accession scrutiny on Bulgaria.
One particularly harsh option floated by commission officials is to freeze EU regional funds payments to Bulgaria until proper financial control is guaranteed and there is a clamp down on sleaze.
Mr Stanishev said however that "no-one has officially raised the issue of an initial suspension of funds" adding that "this would be highly unfair."
Arguing that most EU states which entered the bloc in 2004 have problems spending cash from Brussels, he said "politically it would be wrong in advance to say [to Bulgaria]: you will receive less money. I don't think it would be very fair and very legal."
The commission does not have to take a final decision on the safeguard clauses in the 26 September report – it can legally impose sanctions up until three years after accession.
After the commission report, a formal decision by member states on the terms of accession is only necessary if the commission recommends a one year delay.
If Brussels proposes accession as scheduled in 2007, EU leaders are expected to politically endorse the move at an informal summit in Finland in October.