BULGARIA IS ALREADY ABOARD THE EUROPEAN SHIP
The first of 27 ratifications needed to make the agreement for Bulgaria's accession to the European Union (EU) valid is now a fact. With a majority of 231 votes in favour, quite impressive for the Bulgarian political reality, 2 abstentions and 1 negative vote, the 39th National Assembly approved the text of the agreement that Bulgaria signed in Luxembourg on April 25.By old government tradition,rulers yielded to the temptationto transform a legally routine event (although of historical importance) into a pre-election show. Moreover, it is disputable to what extent the approaching expiration of the mandate of the Government of the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII) had to predetermine the ratification of the EU agreement without a preliminary referendum on the country's EU membership. A referendum was held in nine of the ten Central and East European countries that joined the community in May 2004. However, Bulgarian rulers decided that asking the electorate would only mean useless waste of money and time. On the other hand, the ratification took place in quite a delicate moment for Bulgaria. A few days before the ceremony in Sofia, the leaders of the political factions in the European Parliament agreed to postpone the invitation to the 18 Bulgarian observers from September 2005 to the beginning of 2006. Although the Bulgarian negotiating group repeats that there is nothing fatal in that decision, most western media consider it a clear sign for the negative feelings against Bulgaria's application that are prevailing in the European Parliament. In Germany, the debate is getting violent between the Government of Gerhard Schroeder and the oppositional Christian Democratic Union led by Angela Merkel about the possible reconsideration of the clauses established with Bulgaria and Romania.By ratifying the April 25 agreement at lightning speed, Bulgaria practicallyshifted the responsibilityfor the formal conclusion of the fifth enlargement on the community governments.The speech the Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha read before the voting on May 11 impressed by the fact that it reminded of the recommendations given repeatedly by the European Commission. There is still a lot of work to be done by the beginning of 2007 - that was the main message the Prime Minister sent from the parliamentary tribune. The opposition leaders followed up his tone. Sergey Stanishev, Chairman of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), for example, accused the rulers of conducting non-transparent talks with the European Commission. He also insisted that an explanatory campaign be initiated about the text of the accession agreement written in almost 1,000 pages. In turn, Ivan Kostov, former prime minister and present leader of the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), pointed out the judicial reform that never took place, the low competitive power of the Bulgarian economy and the disintegration of the minority groups.Regardless of any comments, from now on Bulgaria's full membership becomes a hostage of the actions of the 25 member countries parliaments. The time they have to ratify the agreement with Bulgaria is both plenty and insufficient. The trouble is that no official representative of a community state has declared in public that his governmentis impatient to put forward for ratificationthe agreement with Sofia and Bucharest. According to diplomatic sources, most of the member countries will rather wait for the beginning of next November when the European Commission is going to publish its monitoring report. Moreover, that's when it will be known whether or not the experts led by Jose Manuel Barroso will propose the start of the famous safeguard clause. A representative of the cabinet of Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, who requested anonymity commented for the BANKER weekly that he expected European Parliament members to press the Brussels-based commission for delaying at least one of the two applications (either the Bulgarian or the Romanian one). Considering the difficulties that both Balkans countries have to cope with, chances for an approaching (sixth one) shift of the single market borders to the East and for integration of the West Balkan countries are growing delusive.The reasons why the EU will probably slow down the enlargement process can be sought in several directions. One is that the ratification of the new constitution signed last October remains dubious. No one dares to predict what will happen in case of negative voting at the referendum on the European constitution scheduled to be held in France on May 29. The fact that Turkey (one of the largest Muslim countries in the world) is among the potential new members resulting from further enlargement sounds rather disturbing to much of the Catholics on the Continent. Probably the most serious obstacle in front of the further movement of the single market borders to the East is the obscurity of the future single budget.If the EU still enlarges for the sixth time in the coming few years,the most probable new memberswill be Croatia, Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia. Curiously, each country in this Balkans quartet has achieved some progress in its relations with Brussels, but still has serious difficulties in certain areas.For example, none of the four applicants has started official talks for accession yet. As to Serbia, it is still to discuss the signing of an Association Agreement. This is already possible because at the end of last April the former head of the Yugoslav general staff Neboisha Pavkovic surrendered to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. The general was accused of committing crimes during the war in former Yugoslavia in the 90s.At least until last spring Croatia was considered a certain future member of the European community. Zagreb was even given a concrete date for a start of its accession negotiations (March 17). However, following a decision of the EU Council of Ministers, the negotiations were eventually postponed for an unknown period of time. The unfavourable conclusion resulted from a report by the Hague Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte. She reproached the Croatian authorities for not collaborating in the capture of another Yugoslavian war character, General Ante Gotovina. The forecast for Bulgaria's southern neighbour sounds much more optimistic. Recently, the EU Council of Ministers decided that the talks with Ankara which was officially given an applicant status in 1999 would begin on October 3. However, a number of conditions mostly relating to meeting political criteria were laid down to Turkey. One of the most important requirements is that the country sign an additional protocol to the 1963 agreement with the community for establishment of a customs union. The annex will arrange Turkey's trade relations with the ten countries integrated in May 2004. However, the Greek part of Cyprus is one of these countries. Turkey's potential signing of the additional protocol is considered an indirect form of diplomatic acknowledgement of Cyprus. In November, Macedonia may also be given a date for starting negotiations with the European Commission. A special report by Jose Manuel Barroso's experts will be published then on the readiness of the former Yugoslav republic.Objectively speaking, however, the further EU enlargement right now seems a mission almost impossible. Therefore, regardless of the difficulties Bulgaria may face from now on, it should be delighted it is no longer among those waiting to board the European ship.