There are still some small snags to clear, but if everything goes according to plan, Bulgaria is set to become the European Union's newest member during the bloc's fifth round of enlargement in early 2007.
Sofia's downtown may be flying an European flag in two years time
No one in Sofia was surprised when the European Council set a date for Bulgaria to sign an EU accession treaty and become a full-fledged member of the European Union. The Bulgarian government has implemented nearly all the changes the EU pressed for since accession negotiations began in 2000.
Though the bloc has left a back door open in case Bulgaria takes a wrong turn in the final steps on its path toward EU membership, officials foresee an EU flag flying over Sofia on Jan. 1, 2007.
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As an indication of the likelihood of that prediction, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country will take over the rotating EU Presidency in January, announced recently that signing an accession treaty with Bulgaria in the first half of 2005 will be one of the EU's priorities.
Treaty to be signed in early 2005
Many were surprised at the speedy pace with which Bulgaria pushed through Brussels-suggested reforms, sometimes even holding extra parliamentary sessions to pass accession-related legislation.
The changes were especially quick to take effect compared to Romania, another accession candidate hoping to join the union’s fifth enlargement process in 2007. While Sofia’s negotiations ended in June, talks between Bucharest and Brussels only just concluded last week.
Bulgaria's chances at accession were made independent of neighboring Romania's because of the second nation’s slower reform pace. The EU's December accession report stressed that Bulgaria’s accession "should not be linked to that of any other candidate country."
Corruption concerns remain
"On the one hand, there is a lot of enthusiasm about joining the EU," said George Tabakov, chairman of the Bulgarian Economic Forum. "On the other hand there is still work to do."
Corruption is still a big problem in Bulgarian society
The EU’s remaining concerns focus on making sure Bulgaria continues reforming its judiciary system and implementing, and not just talking about, changes that make all branches of government less susceptible to corruption.
US Ambassador James Pardew recently blasted the Bulgarian government for not doing enough to prosecute high-level organized crime and corruption, such as when the BBC caught Ivan Slavkov, former head of Bulgaria’s Olympic Committee, trying to influence the 2012 Olympic bidding process through bribes.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, center, shares a word with Dutch counterpart Ben Bot, right, and Slovenia's Dimitri Rupel during a meeting of the OSCE at the Palace of Culture in Sofia, last week
Demonstrating the country's desire to play fairly in the international community, Bulgaria served as chairman of the Organization for Cooperation and Development in 2004. As a member of NATO, Bulgarian soldiers are deployed as part of an EU-led contingent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the 450 Bulgarian troops in Iraq have received praise from US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Joining the EU will mean an increase of responsibility when every Bulgarian citizen becomes a citizen of the EU," Tabakov of the Bulgarian Economic Forum said.
The offshoot of the membership is that Bulgaria can expect an increase in development aid. Over the next two years Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski's government will receive about €1 billion ($1.34 billion) in EU aid in addition to the more than €2.5 billion it has received since accession negotiations began in 2000. Much of the incoming money will be spent dismantling the Soviet-era Kozloduy nuclear plant by the end of 2006.
Eager trade partner
Bulgaria is also hoping to profit from increased trade with the EU now that an accession date has been set.
EU members already account for 56 percent of Bulgaria’s total export sales worth about €3.61 billion. Just under half of Bulgaria’s imports, worth €4.7 billion, came from EU members and in 2003 Bulgaria experienced a real gross domestic product growth of 4.3 percent.
Though living in what the EU calls a "stable market economy," the average Bulgarian's income is less than a third of that in EU member states. The Bulgarian labor market is improving and unemployment has dropped from 16.4 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in the first half of 2004.
With 63 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.8 million people expressing a favorable view of the European Union, it’s only a matter of time until Sofia becomes an EU capital.