Romania, Bulgaria and the European Union
We're off on a European odyssey
From The Economist print edition
Two poor countries celebrate joining the European Union. But the mood among existing members is glum
FIRST the fake suspense; now the real work. On September 26th the European Commission gave the nod to Romania and Bulgaria to join the European Union next January (the decision must be endorsed by an EU summit, and four national parliaments still have to ratify it). Despite efforts to create an atmosphere of fingerwagging anxiety about both countries' patchy reforms, the outcome was never in doubt.
That is not because the two countries are ready—they are not. Although their economies are growing fast (by 7% in Romania, 6% in Bulgaria), both are poor, with incomes around one-third of the EU average—less than any of the eight other ex-communist countries that joined in May 2004. Romania, especially, has many poor farmers. More seriously, both countries are poor in public spirit as well.
Officials tend to be badly trained, ill-paid and often corrupt. For health care, bribes are routine. At Sofia airport, passport kiosks display “No Payment Here” signs in three languages. Every official is overlooked by a randomly chosen colleague. Not so long ago, border guards extorted small but tiresome bribes from visitors. Such things are distant memories in more advanced ex-communist countries.
Romania is at least willing to prosecute corrupt politicians, thanks to a fearless non-party justice minister, Monica Macovei. In Bulgaria the process has barely begun. Three ministers from the same party are seen as especially corrupt. A foreigner with a big, troubled investment says of one: “My business will close if his ministry doesn't give me the permission I need. My lawyer keeps on getting phone calls offering to ‘solve’ the problem—and that involves either a bribe, or cutting one of the minister's friends in on the deal.”
In the previous government, a minister once said to an investor that “fences in this country can be high or low. The right friend can make them low. You should meet Mr Pavlov”, before introducing him to a notorious gangster. The judiciary, autonomous to the point of lawlessness, is a big problem. One judge is nicknamed “servant” because of his docile bribability.
Such tales have given Bulgaria a bad reputation. Some are out of date: Ilya Pavlov was shot in 2003, one of scores of unsolved gangland killings. The prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, accepts that junior prosecutors may be corrupt but insists that top ones are not. Boris Velchev, the prosecutor-general, is both popular and respected. He has taken on a retired Dutch prosecutor as an adviser, asked parliament to strip a dozen deputies of their immunity, got rid of five senior colleagues and started investigations against at least six junior ones. In the past, he says, the prosecutor's office was a “nursery for corruption” and a “money printer”.
The worst corruption in both countries is in the customs service. Steve Keil, who runs Sciant, an IT company in Sofia, says a vital gadget was held up for months because customs officers deemed it to be “military cryptography”. “We just sent someone to Germany and he brought it back in his hand luggage,” he recalls. That should change after January. Polish customs officials were a big worry for business until 2004, when open borders with the EU sidelined them overnight.
Other efforts are less confidence-inspiring. Bulgaria's public-administration minister, Nikolai Vassilev, has sent 20,000 CD-ROMs with “self-study” anti-corruption software to local officials. That, he says, will at least tell them what's right and what's wrong. Many suspect that changes will be cosmetic because political will is lacking at the top. Mr Stanishev is known as “the lad” because real power lies not in the prime minister's office, but with two chiefs of his ex-communist party.
Bulgarians point out plaintively that corruption is a problem elsewhere too. Ognian Shentov, of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia think-tank, argues that “corruption in Bulgaria is not necessarily the worst in the EU—but it is certainly the most intensively studied.” A realistic hope may be that it just becomes less blatant and less damaging: “Italian-style”, says one optimistic official. Indeed, if the EU can cope with Sicily, why not Bulgaria?
In recognition of these problems, Brussels has imposed a string of safeguard clauses on the two new members. It can step in if either country backslides, for example to cut subsidies if they are poorly or corruptly administered. Bulgarian court judgments will be recognised abroad only so long as judicial reform continues. Both countries must make six-monthly reports about corruption.
Most of the eight ex-communist countries that joined in 2004 were not ready either. Even today, their poor public administration creates problems in managing cash from the EU. But they are improving. And the stability and prosperity that has spread across the first eight is now the best argument for welcoming the Balkan pair. Their arrival extends the EU's borders round the troubled and troublesome western Balkans, and as far as the Black Sea—a region where the EU has strong interests on issues from energy to smuggling.
Among existing members, the biggest fear is over free movement of workers. The accession of the previous eight led as many as 2m people, chiefly Poles, Slovaks, Latvians and Lithuanians, to head west. Could that happen with migrants from the Balkans? Probably not. For a start, some 2m Romanians already work abroad, mostly in Italy and Spain. If they move out of the shadows, that means fewer problems, not more. In Bulgaria, “those who want to leave have already done so,” says Mr Stanishev. One nagging worry is migration by ethnic kin from two poorer neighbours. Romania sees most Moldovans as potential citizens; the country was a Romanian province until 1940. Bulgaria, with less justification, feels the same about Macedonia. Moldovans and Macedonians have been queuing up to get passports but are blithely blocked by what are called “administrative”—ie, illegal—means.
Most existing EU countries will impose restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians—even Britain, Ireland and Sweden, which did not do so for the May 2004 entrants. The mood in Brussels is souring. This week the commission president, José Manuel Barroso, said it would be unwise to continue expansion until the EU's institutions are reformed. He may be misreading public opinion: enlargement has more support than the Dutch and French showed last year for the EU constitution.