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EU may set farm, extradition conditions on Bulgaria and Romania

The European Union may deny Bulgaria and Romania some agricultural subsidies and slow extraditions to the eastern European nations when they join the 25-nation bloc on January 1. If the two countries join the EU as planned, „a number of accompanying measures will be difficult to avoid,” said Krisztina Nagy, a commission spokeswoman. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, will give its verdict on the entry date and conditions at about 3 p.m. in Strasbourg, France. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said yesterday the two nations will join the EU „soon.” The possible curbs, stemming from concerns about corruption and food safety in the former Communist nations, highlight a backlash over the entry of poor countries into the EU. After adding 10 mainly eastern European nations in May 2004, the EU is heeding growing public opposition to more members. Support for enlargement among the EU's 450 million citizens fell below 50% in the past year, according to EU surveys released in July and December. „Enlargement continues, but it is getting tougher,” said Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the London-based Center for European Reform. „For many people in the EU, enlargement means an increase in economic uncertainty because of low-wage competition.”

Romania and Bulgaria, with a combined population of 30 million, are counting on accession to help raise per-capita wealth from a third of the EU average. Their entry will expand the world's largest trading bloc to the Black Sea. Disenchantment in the EU over expansion threatens the membership goals of Turkey, Croatia and Macedonia, which are further behind in the process. Turkey and Croatia began accession talks last year and Macedonia seeks the go-ahead to start them. „The EU can't be stretched endlessly,” said Nicolas Sarkozy, France's interior minister who heads the governing UMP party and is its leading candidate for the 2007 presidential election, three weeks ago. „Fixing a geographical and political framework for the EU is essential.” The prospect of membership has bolstered the Bulgarian and Romanian economies. Last year, Romania's economy grew 4.1% to about $100 billion, its sixth year of expansion, and the Bulgaria's GDP increased 5.5% to about $24 billion in its eighth year of growth.

The countries signed accession treaties in 2005, the same year French and Dutch voters rejected a European constitution meant to help the bloc function better with more members. Bulgaria and Romania hadn't fully met European standards, so the EU reserved the right to delay entry by 12 months and deny membership benefits in areas such as justice and agriculture. The EU has raised the hurdles for the two nations to a level that might have prevented some of the 10 countries that joined in 2004 from getting in, said Geoffrey Van Orden, a UK Conservative member of the European Parliament. He attributed the tougher conditions to the constitutional veto and accession talks with Turkey, which would become the EU's first Muslim member. With 70 million people and per-capita wealth a quarter of the EU average, Turkey would be one of the bloc's most populous states and its poorest. „Bulgaria and Romania are caught up in the backwash from the failure of the constitution and the prospect of Turkish accession, both of which have caused alarm in some political circles,” said Van Orden, who supports further EU enlargement.

The commission pressed Bulgaria and Romania in the past year to step up the fight against corruption and upgrade food safety. It also urged better controls for handling planned EU subsidies of €32 billion ($41 billion) for Romania and €11 billion for Bulgaria through 2013. Romania ranked 80th and Bulgaria 55th in a 2005 league table of corrupt countries compiled by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog. The two countries have had outbreaks of animal diseases including bird flu over the past year and the EU already bans some imports of poultry. Curbs imposed by the EU may involve excluding Bulgaria and Romania from the fast-track procedure for extraditions and denying some subsidies until farm standards and financial controls are improved. „I can only express the hope there will be no safeguards,” Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu said last week.

Individual EU nations may also impose restrictions on workers. The UK, one of three members that didn't limit immigration from the 2004 entrants, signaled last week it will keep Bulgarians and Romanians off the domestic labor market. „We need to manage immigration carefully, including in respect of the forthcoming decisions over Romania and Bulgaria,” said UK Home Secretary John Reid. „We need to consider very carefully all the implications of accession of new states and ensure that we have all necessary safeguards in place.” EU governments could postpone Bulgaria's entry only by unanimous approval of a commission recommendation and Romania's membership by a majority vote, indicating the EU was more concerned about Romania than Bulgaria during membership talks. Since then, Romania has made more progress than Bulgaria, according to the commission. Romania's parliament this year approved a law letting prosecutors extend corruption probes to legislators and ministers and Bulgarian lawmakers backed amendments stiffening penalties for corruption and allowing the judiciary to try legislators. (Bloomberg)