When Bulgaria joined the European Union on 1 January 2007 not everyone was convinced that the country was fit for the club. The last of the European Commission's monitoring reports on Bulgaria had pointed to major challenges in the justice system and the prevalence of corruption and organised crime. On 13 December 2006, barely two weeks before Bulgaria's accession, the Commission established a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to monitor progress in these sensitive areas. The mechanism also applied to Romania, which joined the EU at the same time as its southern neighbour. Read more …
Those who expected swift progress have been disappointed. A part of EU funds for Bulgaria were frozen over cases of embezzlement from 2008 to 2009, when a new government under Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard turned politician, took power. Bi-annual reports under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism continue to be critical, meanwhile. The Dutch government has referred to these reports to justify its continued opposition to Bulgaria's accession to the Schengen area (although the country meets all the Schengen technical criteria).
The EU has drawn a number of lessons from Bulgaria's accession process. As seen in the case of Croatia, accession talks have become even more demanding. Member states now have the power to insist on specific benchmarks before the opening or closing of any negotiation chapter. Considerably more emphasis is placed on the actual implementation as opposed to codification of new policies, standards and procedures. In accession talks with Montenegro the EU applies yet another level of scrutiny. In order to ensure that its government invests sufficient time and resources in the demanding area of judicial reform, Montenegro has to address chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights (chapter 23) and justice, freedom and security (chapter 24) from the very beginning of its membership negotiations with the EU.
Criticism of Bulgaria notwithstanding, it is important to recall how much Bulgaria has changed during its EU accession process (for a short overview see: From laggard to EU member). In early 1997 Bulgaria was a country in deep crisis, its economy in shambles and its politics in disarray. The EU's decision to include it in its pre-accession strategy (with the frontrunners from Central Europe) proved farsighted, however, triggering and supporting major changes in Bulgaria's administrative structures, its economy and society.
The Bulgaria of today still faces many challenges, including in the area of the rule of law. Bulgaria has not become Sweden, Denmark, or Poland, but it has become a very different country from what it was in 1997. It has also changed in a much more positive direction than its neighbours in the Western Balkans, who were left out of the 5th EU enlargement round.
30 April 2012