STRASBOURG, France – The European Parliament on Wednesday approved the entry of Bulgaria (search) and Romania (search) into the European Union (search) in 2007, but said both countries still need to make reforms.
Legislators voted 522-70 in favor of Bulgaria, with 69 abstentions, and 497-93 in favor of Romania, with 71 abstentions, in two separate ballots after a heated debate in which some members asked for a postponement of the vote, demanding the two Balkan countries be given more time to implement necessary reforms.
"No one can say Romania is ready to join the community," said Green party leader Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit. "Press freedoms, corruption and other issues need to be resolved."
The EU is not giving Sofia and Bucharest an absolute guarantee they will join in 2007. Their entry treaties contain "super safeguard clauses" that may trigger a one-year delay if certain conditions are not met.
The EU has criticized Bulgaria's failure to adopt new penal codes for fighting corruption and had also called for greater efforts to combat organized crime.
Romania, which the EU declared to be a market economy only last June, must also boost justice and law enforcement, as well as securing rights for the Roma minority. It must also increase environmental protection, accelerate antitrust rules and shed its history of state aid, epitomized by an oversized steel sector.
Wednesday's approval followed a last-minute agreement on budgetary terms acceptable to the European People's Party, the parliament's largest political group, and the Greens, who had sought guarantees from the European Council they would be involved in procedures for financing the latest EU enlargement.
"We took a decision last night; our assent to the enlargement would have been deferred if the financial rights of the Parliament weren't safeguarded," said People's Party chairman Hans-Gert Poettering. "But we reached a last minute solution today and agreed on budgetary terms."
The European Union's enlargement chief warned both countries on Tuesday that their plans to join the EU in 2007 might be postponed by up to a year if they failed to meet all conditions necessary for joining the 25-nation bloc.
"Romania and Bulgaria must deliver on key reforms," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. "We won't hesitate to use safeguard clauses. The agreement must be conditional. If they fall too far behind, accession may be delayed."
Bulgaria and Romania lag behind even the poorest current EU members. Bulgaria's per-capita GDP is only $3,255, with the average monthly wage around $213. In Romania, per-capita GDP is $2,850, while the average monthly wage is $340.
In the richest EU countries, per-capita GDP is well over $26,000.
"The clock is ticking every day from now on," Rehn said. "Both countries will be subject to very close monitoring by the European Commission, Parliament and Council."