These days are busy times for Bulgaria's parliament, with lawmakers promising to work extra shifts to bring the country's rule book up to European Union levels. Meanwhile though, a major political crisis looms, as the government tries to continue without a working majority, following the resignation of a major block of supporters. With the issue over which they broke being the need for faster economic reform, the move could have a major impact on parliament's agenda - and on the pace of change nationwide.
On March 8, Deputy Prime Minister Plamen Panayotov announced that starting from the following week, the assembly would hold extraordinary sessions every Tuesday to pass laws necessary for Bulgaria's admission into the EU.
This followed the approval by the government's Council of European Integration committee of a timetable for adoption of the outstanding legislation. Most of this has to do with upgrading the Bulgarian legal code to bring it into line with EU standards. It also includes a new public procurement law and a new law concerning the nation's ports, Panayotov declared.
The urgency over the legislative reforms has arisen because Bulgaria wants to keep to the original timetable of EU accession, meaning that it needs everything passed by November this year. That is when the term of the current European Commission ends, and will mean Bulgaria remains on track to join the Union on January 1, 2005.
The decision to speed up the legislative process was also taken after a flurry of diplomatic activity concerning the EU. March 3 saw Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria's minister for European affairs, visit her Irish opposite number, Dick Roche, in Dublin. Ireland is the current holder of the EU term presidency.
Kuneva went to Dublin to highlight a growing area of frustration in Bulgaria - and in other EU candidate countries - over labour market liberalisation. One of the big selling points of EU membership for poorer Eastern European and Balkan states has been the prospect of its citizens being able to travel to and work in wealthier Western countries, yet since initial promises that they would be able to do so, there has been a serious backtracking on this by many EU members. Now Ireland remains the only EU state that has not imposed any restrictions on Bulgarians coming to work there - partly, many point out, because it is one of the few EU countries with a major labour shortage.
A seven-year transition period is now envisaged, during which labour markets will be opened up across the Union. In the meantime, Kuneva is pressing for Bulgarians to be allowed unrestricted access to European labour markets within two years of membership beginning.
Meanwhile, the government was trying to do its best to secure the country's passage to membership in other areas as well. On March 4, President Georgi Parvanov signed a decree to award EU Commissioner for Enlargement Gunter Verheugen the Stara Planina (Balkan Mountain) - the highest Bulgarian civilian award.
This was for his "exclusive contribution to the successful process of Bulgaria's membership negotiations with the EU", the presidential press office said.
Yet the government may need more than medals to secure its place as the administration that brought Bulgaria into the EU - particularly after 10 backbenchers split from the ruling coalition to form their own group in parliament on March 9.
This now gives the ruling coalition between Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg's National Movement for Simeon II (NMSII) party and the predominantly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) a total of 117 seats in the 240-seat chamber. With its majority gone, the loss of the 11 deputies represents another major blow to the widely unpopular administration.
The 10 were members of the "New Time" faction of the NMSII, and have been joined by one independent from outside the government to constitute a new parliamentary block. They have so far announced that while they will not act directly to unseat the administration, they will act to put further pressure on it to speed up privatisation and economic reform.
The "New Time" faction is largely composed of young technocrats, often with strong Western backgrounds. They have also been pushing for change in the electoral system, advocating a majority voting method, rather than the current proportional representation.
The split comes ahead of a no-confidence vote March 11, put by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), yet it seems the New Time group is unlikely to vote to unseat the government. With the NMSII running at around 6% in the opinion polls, a collapse of the administration now would mean its almost certain annihilation at the polling booths - an eventuality New Time seems anxious to avoid. Rather, it appears for the moment to be content to act as a pressure group on the minority government, better able to trade its support for faster and more far-reaching economic reform.
This, of course, presents a real conundrum for Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg. He stands accused by New Time of slowing up on liberalisation as a sop to the BSP, while the BSP accuses him of going too fast and failing to support Bulgaria's ailing state industries - and the people who work for them. It seems his government may now find itself between a rock and a hard place. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on EU accession and parliament will need to work rapidly and with little dispute if it is to pass all the necessary legislation on time.