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15 years on: How are Bulgaria and Romania doing in the EU?

  • Joining in January 2007, both countries continue to be bottom of the EU league in terms of wages, transport infrastructure, health and education (Photo: futureatlas.com)
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This January marks 15 years since both Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union - with a decade-and-a-half of both accomplishments and setbacks.

The two former communist states both became EU members some three years later than the main 2004 accession wave of other ex-Iron Curtain east European nations.

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  • Bulgaria still continues to be EU's poorest member, followed by Romania (Photo: European Commission)

Romania and Bulgaria have seen over the past 15 years a slow-but-steady rise in the standard of living, as well as many reversals in bringing about reform in all areas of public life, from the economy to a much-needed overhaul of the judicial systems.

The antiquated and rigid bureaucratic system, as well as a culture of client-politics and fraud involving European funding has marred the overall accession picture for the pair.

Yet the two countries managed to absorb tens of billions of euros from Brussels - money used to build new infrastructure and expanded their economies.

According to the European Commission representation in Romania, in its 15 years of EU membership, Romania has received EU funding of €62bn, and paid €21bn into the EU budget.

"Economically speaking, Romania is a net beneficiary of European funding", according to Ramona Chiriac, the head of the European Commission representation in Romania, at a press event.

"A simple calculation reveals a positive balance of €41bn. But I would like to emphasise that it is not just about money, but European solidarity. I would like to note that European funding is present everywhere you look in Romania, they are an integral part of the country's development in these 15 years."

Despite both Bulgaria and Romania still having some of the lowest wages in the EU, their GDP grew significantly. It doubled for Bulgaria and almost tripled for Romania.

However, both countries continue to be bottom of the EU league in terms of wages, transport infrastructure, health and education.

Bulgaria still continues to be EU's poorest member, followed by Romania. In both nations work productivity and competitiveness are at the lowest.

The healthcare systems in both countries have consistently been ranked in recent years as the EU's worst according to the Euro Health Consumer Index.

Romania (€661 per inhabitant) and Bulgaria (€626 per inhabitant) spend less on their medical system than any other EU country, according to Eurostat, way behind top performers such as Luxembourg, Sweden and Denmark, each with over €5,500 health expenditure per inhabitant each year.

The latest European Commission Health Report also puts the south-eastern European nations last in terms of the overall lifespan of their citizens. Romanians and Bulgarian now die even younger than before.

EU membership has helped the two countries remain on track, however.

It is very likely that the supervision of the European Commission has helped Romania keep a functioning rule-of-law system, particularly during the 2017-2019 protests. Then the ruling party tried to change the penal code to help its party members escape corruption charges, attracting ire from Brussels, which warned Romania was moving away from the rule of law and against EU norms.

EU membership has counterbalanced corruption tendencies of their political classes, but at the same time the two countries have not yet been accepted into the Schengen area.

Passports, please!

In Romania, officials say the country has been ready for years to join Schengen.

Despite now enjoying the backing of the EU Parliament, following a recent report, Bulgaria and Romania's bid to join the control-free travel area has been a bumpy ride.

After it was approved by the European parliament in June 2011, the Council of Ministers rejected it in September that year - with the French, Dutch, and Finnish governments citing concerns on shortcomings in anti-corruption measures and in the fight against organised crime.

Romania and Bulgaria are also not part of the eurozone, despite their keen interest in joining.

Romania has moved back and forth on various phases of the accession process over the past 15 years since it became part of the EU, outlining plans and setting numerous deadlines for joining the eurozone.

The country lags behind in its readiness to adopt the single currency. Romania previously set 2024 as a deadline to join the eurozone, but the odds are slim for that to happen, so officials moved that deadline back to 2027-2028.

On the other hand, Bulgaria has been admitted in the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II) - the first step in joining the euro.

Officials in the Bulgaria set 1 January 2024 as the accession date to the eurozne. Government representatives said that there will be no transition period and that the national currency and the euro will circulate simultaneously for a month, with Bulgaria's Lev withdrawn from circulation in early February 2024.

Author bio

Cristian Gherasim is a freelance journalist contributing to EUobserver, Euronews, EU Reporter, Katoikos, Von Mises Institute, and bne IntelliNews, with a particular focus on European and regional affairs.

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