Should Romania and Bulgaria have been let in, and what does it say about how the EU club expands?

One of the EU’s greatest strengths is the incentive it gives applicant countries to reform their economic and political systems before they are allowed to join.   When ten countries from central and eastern Europe joined in 2004, it became a giant if uncontroversial box-ticking exercise, and few would now say they joined too early, even if their presence has made the EU a pretty unwieldy beast.

With Romania and Bulgaria, which were admitted three years later, the opposite view now prevails: they were let in ‘under the wire’ for political reasons before adequate measures were taken to reform their judicial systems, eradicate corruption and – in Bulgaria’s case – tackle organised crime.

Greece was admitted in 1981 more to prevent it slipping back into dictatorship than because it was ready to benefit from being part of a bigger, more competitive European market.  With Greece still dragging the EU down 31 years later, this time in the euro crisis, there is a growing sense in Brussels that if you soften the entry terms for political reasons, you never see the end of it: the EU’s one-off chance to remedy a country is gone and it becomes a permanent ambulance case.

Last week the European Commission unveiled its “progress reports” on the next wave of countries waiting to join the EU.  These updates form the basis on which Ministers ultimately decide which applicants are ready and which are not.  A timely moment, then, to reflect on how the EU’s two newest members Romania and Bulgaria have fared, whether Ministers got it right five years ago, and indeed whether they have perfected the art of EU enlargement at all.

In a nutshell, it seems little tangible progress has been made in either country, but they have improved markedly in one way: putting a better gloss on things.

“It’s like sand running through your fingers”, says one EU official familiar with the Commission’s frustration as it assesses progress in Bucharest and Sofia.  Committees are established, anti-corruption initiatives are launched and police chiefs make muscular statements about taking on the gansters, but little changes in practice.

The Commission’s work is beset with hurdles, some deliberate, some not.  Statistics are often doctored, while some functionaries just happen to be out of town when Brussels turns up at their door.

The picture is not entirely bleak.  There is a sense that while Romania is less organised and more chaotic than Bulgaria – a problem exacerbated by the current political stalemate between Romania’s president and prime minister – this hiatus may be leaving room for a serious reform movement to take root.   Furthermore, the imprisonment on corruption charges of Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister, is touted in Brussels as a sign that Romanian judges are growing more courageous.

In Bulgaria the opposite prevails: EU officials talk of rigidly organised Ministries with “lines of patronage” running through them. Regarding judicial reform, anecdotal evidence suggests little has moved.  The  spate of contract killings that besmirched the period after communism ended appears to have died down.  But when two mafia bosses were imprisoned for brawling, rumour has it they walked free from jail then wrote to the ministry of the interior – from an official ministry email address – noting how pleasant the weather was in the Seychelles.

The EU is reluctant to penalise Bulgaria or Romania formally by stripping them of EU funding.  In reality this happens, though: they have spent little over 5% of their allocated resources because the rest could not be properly audited.

So does the EU rue the day it ever let them in?  Not quite.  Being in the EU “creates pressure on Romania and Bulgaria to be seen to be making the right noises”, one official observes.  But will noises be enough for much longer?

And what about the next wave?  Croatia should join in January, but that was easy.  Its economy is relatively competitive, and it is a small country.  Turkey is not.  It is also predominantly Muslim so triggers a different kind of reticence among some EU members.

EU enlargement has become more cautious than ever, but not just because its analysis of an applicant’s economic readiness is more rigorous.  The process is now driven less by “are they ready for us?” and more by “are we ready for them?” .  Which suggests that the scrutiny is every bit as political as it always was.