EU Commission President Jose Barroso on Tuesday presented a list of conditions Sofia and Bucharest must fulfill so they can attain EU membership by 2007.
EU membership is within reach for Romania and Bulgaria
Speaking before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Barroso said that both countries could become EU members if they managed to resolve remaining problems, especially in the areas of justice and domestic policies.
Barroso said he and EU Enlargement Commissioner would travel to Sofia and Bucharest to deliver a "message of encouragement."
Should either country fail to meet the requirements, membership could be postponed by a year. A final decision on the matter won't be taken until October, however, giving both countries a chance for last minute fixes.
Diplomats said that the declining pace of reform in the two countries was the reason for the delay in giving the final go-ahead to Sofia and Bucharest. By increasing the pressure on Bulgaria and Romania, EU leaders, including Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, hope that a postponement of membership to 2008 won't be necessary.
"No later than early October we will review the situation on those outstanding issues," Barroso said, adding that "the possibility of being ready in 2007 is doable."
The ca n didates face three possibilities
EU Commission chief Barroso would like membership "as soon as possible"
A no-string attached invitation, however, is only one of three possibilities that Bulgaria and Romania could face in Rehn's report. If he finds that all the criteria have been met then some 30 million Bulgarians and Romanians can prepare to celebrate their acceptance into the EU club on Jan. 1.
Another possibility which they may have to accept is a postponement of membership until 2008. Based on the findings of the last report Rehn presented last October, serious problems had to be addressed. In the October report, corruption was high on the list, and the commission said it had to be tackled with "urgent and forceful action."
"If it remains at current levels, corruption threatens the internal market, the proper functioning of EU policies and EU-funded programs," the commission said in its October monitoring report.
Money laundering continues to be a problem in the candidate countries
Progress in the fight against organized crime, fraud and money-laundering also belonged to the conditions set by the EU. Bulgaria must also clean up the improper use of EU agricultural funds and address veterinary issues.
A third possibility would be an invitation to join in January 2007 but the two countries would not be able to take part in certain activities -- for example at the judicial level if EU concerns about corruption have not been allayed -- until all the requirements have been met.
EU leaders have fi n al say
EU leaders must give the final stamp of approval for Bulgaria's and Romania's ascendancy on Jan. 1, 2007. It would take a unanimous vote to postpone Bulgaria's membership until 2008. For Romania, a two-thirds majority would suffice. The disparity lies in the fact that Bulgaria had long proved it was battling corruption more successfully than Romania.
In the meantime, Bucharest has overtaken Sofia in the fight against graft, but that will not change the voting procedure when it occurs.