The European Parliament gave the green light to EU accession for Bulgaria come January 2007, but there are still some hurdles to clear.
Sofia's parliamentarians will have to get to work before joining the EU
Whether for or against, Monday's scheduled signing of an EU accession treaty has been on everyone's mind for the past few weeks in Bulgaria.
There have been critical noises coming from Brussels, and they've focused on two points: judicial reform that isn't moving fast enough and the fight against organized crime.
The EU wants to make sure Bulgaria follows through with its promise to conform laws to European standards by limiting judges' currently wide-ranging powers and conducting more democratic and transparent elections. Who and how official investigations are conducted also needs to be redefined to meet EU guidelines.
Closely related to the judicial reforms is Bulgaria's fight against organized crime, which to a degree has already been successful. But EU officials feel it still has not gone far enough in reining in counterfeiters, product piracy or drug and people smuggling. Gang warfare in the streets of Sofia and other Bulgarian cities has claimed a number of lives and raised concerns in Brussels.
Problems can be overcome
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov
The Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov (photo), along with other members of government, has repeatedly emphasized that the required reforms will be completed by the end of the year.
Even as the public knows there is still work to be done, no one is Sofia is ready to admit that the country may not be ready for accession.
"It is good that the European Parliament spent quite a lot of time on Bulgaria," said Timo Summa, the European Commission's Director General for Enlargement in Acceding Countries. "The discussion was partly critical, but very fair. The majority is very clearly strongly positive side after a professional discussion."
Other Europeans remain skeptical of Parvanov's ability to push the changes through and are considering invoking a "protection clause" that calls for accession to be delayed by a year.
Economy may not be ready for EU
Bulgaria's economy could be swept away by the EU market
The critics charge that the Bulgarian economy is not prepared for the larger EU market and could be overwhelmed. The country's productivity and gross domestic product are about 30 percent of the European average and the average salary is just 150 euros ($196), limiting Bulgarians' buying power.
Other problems concern the Roma minority and closing down four of the six nuclear power reactors as part of an agreement already reached with the EU that many in Bulgaria are against, due to rising price of electricity. Some in the Bulgarian opposition have called for new accession negotiations concerning the energy industry.
Though all Bulgaria's relevant political parties, and 70 percent of the population, are clearly oriented toward the EU, a change in political constellations after parliamentary elections this June could slow down judicial reforms and the ratification of the European Constitution.
Sofia can rely on German support
The possible difficulties made headlines in a critical article from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, leading Bulgarians to feel betrayed by a possible policy shift on the part of the German government. It's a shift that never took place according to Gernot Erler (photo), a member of Germany's ruling Social Democrat Party and chairman of the German-Bulgarian Forum.
"We have seen some critical report about the situation in Bulgaria in the German media," he said. "Germany has always supported the accession of Romania and Bulgaria and I am sure at the end the opposition will too."