A key vote in the European Parliament next month may give Bulgarians a quick preview of their country's progress towards EU accession - and also give an important clue whether membership might be delayed.
The head of Bulgaria's European Affairs Parliamentary Commission, Atanas Paparisov, told the local press in late March that the preview might come as early as April 25 or 26, when the European Parliament is expected to pass judgment on the country's readiness for membership.
While the parliamentary vote will have no legal impact on the Bulgaria's accession, it could provide an insight into which way the European Commission is leaning ahead of the release of its final report, due out on May 17.
While there is no official association between the commission's report and Bulgaria's accession, its recommendations are expected to determine whether or not member states will vote to implement a safeguard clause that would delay membership until 2008.
The clause can only take effect if the European Council unanimously rules in favour on any recommendation of the European Commission that there is a serious risk of the country being noticeably unprepared to meet a number of important membership requirements.
As part of the accession process, the commission keeps tabs on Bulgaria's political and economic reforms as well as progress towards a legal order that every member state must abide by. According to the most recent Comprehensive Monitoring Report released in October 2005, Bulgaria has successfully implemented reforms in many key areas but still needed to address several outstanding problems, the most serious being corporate law, agriculture, internal affairs and the justice system.
"[The report's] main thrust was that 15 months before accession, Bulgaria has achieved a high degree of preparedness and is generally meeting its commitments in most areas," EU Affairs Minister Meglena Kuneva told OBG. "However, there are a number of areas where increased efforts and urgent action are needed if our country is to join on January 1, 2007."
In the area of corporate law, the protection of intellectual and industrial property rights were issues that still needed to be addressed, according to the report. Further reforms were also urged in the areas of motor vehicle insurance, mutual recognition of professional qualifications, the right of establishment, banking, investment services and securities markets, information society regulations, the protection of personal data and money laundering.
By the time Bulgaria reaches the target accession date, the country's agricultural system is expected to comply with EU regulations governing quality control, organic farming, the Farm Accounting Data Network, state aid, rural development, zootechnics, animal nutrition and the phytosanitary sector in addition to other international fisheries agreements. Areas the EU harbours serious concerns include the common market organisation on milk, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) and animal by-products (in particular the construction of a second rendering plant and the introduction of a feed ban). Also at issue is the veterinary control system (identification and registration of animals, the establishment of border inspection posts) and animal diseases control, the trade in live animals and animal products, veterinary public health and animal welfare in the chapter on agriculture.
Although reforms are proceeding in these areas, a lack of funding for related projects and a heavily fragmented agriculture industry may make it difficult for all of these areas to be in full compliance by 2007.
The integration of minorities - and particularly the Roma, who make up around 10% of the population - into mainstream Bulgarian society is another matter of concern for the country's internal affairs. Additionally, the report urged action in institutional structures and financial management and control in the area of regional policy.
The final and most publicised areas in which Bulgaria must make significant strides to rectify its deficiencies are justice and home affairs. The paramount concern here is the ability of the government to deal with organised crime. In recent years more than 150 people have died in shootings, bombings, and other violence linked to powerful criminal groups, but the government has failed to convict a single person for the offences. With every public car bombing and machine gun attack, Bulgaria's "wild west" image and the view of some that it is a lawless country inundated with mafia bosses and no-neck thugs is perpetuated. This is a particularly detrimental stereotype for a nation striving to gain membership of the EU.
The European Commission has made it clear that it considers this matter to be of the utmost concern, and has repeatedly and in no uncertain terms demanded progress on this front. In addition to organised crime, and often related to it, the battle against corruption and fraud and the future management of the EU external border are issues that need further attention. The Bulgarian government, for its part, has been feverishly producing legislation aimed at reforming the country's so far less than fully effective justice system.
"There is a very high degree of political motivation in working toward EU accession and we are absolutely sure we will meet the commitments that we have made in the enlargement treaty," Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivailo Kalfin told OBG.
Now it just remains for the EU and all its attendant bodies to be as assured.