The Big Bang of 2004, when the European Union grew to 25 members, is to be followed by further expansions. Negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania are already under way, a decision on starting accession negotiations with Turkey will be taken in December 2004 and Croatia has now applied for membership as well.
Although accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania started in 1999, around the same time as with the ten countries set to join the EU in May 2004, these two countries have not yet been given the green light. The EU government leaders at the Copenhagen summit of December 2002 did not consider Bulgaria and Romania to be ready, although they did acknowledge the considerable progress both countries had made so far.
Bulgaria did meet the political criteria, but it still had much to do to strengthen the judiciary, combat corruption and cross-border crime and eliminate discrimination against the Roma minority. Economically, Bulgaria was not yet able to compete with EU market forces. It also needed to ensure transparent public procurement procedures and protect intellectual property rights better. The country was told to improve its energy supply strategy and to decommission four reactors of the Kozloduy nuclear plant. Equal treatment of men and women still needed to be enacted in law. Finally, Bulgaria needed to adopt stronger environmental legislation. Parliament also criticised the continuing discrimination under law against homosexuals.
Romania fulfils the political criteria as well, but corruption remains a serious problem. Economically, the country would also not be able to compete with EU market forces yet. Little progress has been made on the free movement of goods and people and Romania lacks the administrative capacity to enforce new environmental legislation. Energy policy has been inconsistent. Although border control and migration policy have significantly improved, the capacity for border management needs to be reinforced. The weakness of the administration in many important sectors is still a cause for serious concern. In its reports Parliament has repeatedly pointed to the abuse and neglect of children in Romanian state institutions and the problems of street children and child trafficking, but the country has since taken important steps to improve the treatment of children. Other problems signalled by Parliament were the need to integrate minorities, especially the Roma, to make the nuclear and mining industry safer and to safeguard the freedom of information and of independent media.
In view of this situation, the EU government leaders decided in December 2002 in Copenhagen to continue the accession negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania and to intensify the efforts to prepare them for entry into the EU, if possible by 2007.
In its latest reports on the progress made by Romania and Bulgaria, Parliament congratulated Bulgaria on its achievements and said that the country would seem to be able to complete the accession negotiations by the end of 2004. As regards Romania, Parliament noted that the country had made progress in a number of areas, but still faced serious difficulties fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. It said that becoming a member of the EU would not be possible unless Romania fully implemented anti-corruption measures, ensured the independence and proper functioning of the judiciary as well as freedom of the media, and took measures to stop ill-treatment at police stations. Parliament also called on Romania to set up an effective child protection system.
Decision on opening negotiations with Turkey in 2004
Although Turkey entered into an association agreement with the EU as early as 1964 and applied for membership in 1987, it was only formally recognised as a candidate country at the Helsinki summit of 1999 and no decision has been taken yet to start accession negotiations. An important problem over the years has been Turkey’s track record on democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the rights of minorities. However, in December 2002, the EU governments recognised that in a relatively brief period Turkey had taken significant steps to reform its legislation to meet the political criteria for accession. Turkey was urged to pursue its reforms energetically. And if the Council, on the basis of a report and a recommendation of the Commission, decides in December 2004 that Turkey meets the Copenhagen political criteria, the EU will open accession negotiations without delay.
In a resolution adopted on 5 June 2003 Parliament concurred with this view. It welcomed the progress Turkey has made towards fulfilling the political criteria for EU membership but said that the conditions for the opening of accession negotiations were not yet in place. MEPs stressed the need for comprehensive reform of the state and voiced concern over the army’s "excessive role" in Turkey. However, they stressed that, even if the political values of the European Union - democracy, the rule of law, human and minority rights and freedoms of religion and conscience - are chiefly based on the Judaeo-Christian and humanist culture of Europe, they can perfectly well be accepted and defended by a country where the majority of the population is muslim. In other words, MEPs believe the dominant religion of a candidate country does not in itself constitute an obstacle to EU membership.
Outlook for the Western Balkans
With the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 a debate has been launched on the final borders of the EU. A conclusive answer cannot be given as yet. But at the Thessaloniki summit of June 2003 the EU government leaders clearly held out the prospect of EU membership to the five countries of the Western Balkans - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Relations between the EU and the Western Balkans will be strengthened further, drawing on the experience gained through the accession process for the central and eastern European countries. In line with a demand from Parliament, €200 million will be added to the funds already available for this region for the years 2004-2006. MEPs had stressed that the moment had come to move on from ensuring security to fostering social and economic development, otherwise the countries of the Western Balkans would slide into permanent poverty and risk becoming a region of conflict again. Croatia applied for membership in February 2003 and its application has just received a favourable opinion from the Commission. Macedonia lodged a membership application in March 2004.