The European Parliament's key committee on Wednesday gave its backing to Bulgaria and Romania joining the European Union, which is scheduled for January 2007.
EU hopefuls: Bulgaria and Romania will likely be next to join
The parliament's foreign affairs committee voted 59 to two with nine abstentions in favor of Romania's accession. Bulgaria, which is better prepared to join the bloc, was endorsed with 71 to one votes with one abstention.
The committee's backing virtually guarantees that the full 732-member parliament will also approve the country's entry bids. The body is set to vote on the subject on April 13, days ahead of the April 25 signature of a treaty on Bulgaria and Romania's accession.
Olli Rehn, EU enlargement commissioner
On Tuesday, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn (photo) urged EU lawmakers to support the membership bids of both Bulgaria, which was "reasonably on track" to join the bloc, and Romania about which he was "cautiously optimistic."
Romania on the spot
Urged by Rehn in the last EU evaluation to make its justice system more resistant to corruption, the Romanian government has been in a race against the clock to do so, and to implement other EU accession criteria.
Romanian President Traian Basescu at Deutsche Welle this month
"The government is fully committed to establishing working laws to combat corruption," Romanian President Traian Basescu (photo) told a press conference in Bucharest on Wednesday. "We have pledged to clean up the justice system and reduce the rampant corruption in Romania," he added.
The main problems facing Romania are how to better use EU funds, restructure party funding, crack down on tax evasion, re-schedule company debts and create conditions suitable for foreign investment.
Proving their mettle
Once the accession treaty is signed, the two countries will be obliged to carry out all reforms agreed with the EU, including fighting corruption, strengthening their legal systems and introducing EU-style state aid rules. Otherwise, their membership could be postponed until 2008.
Romania and Bulgaria were too slow in enacting democratic and market reforms after the 1989 fall of communism to join the union when eight other ex-communist countries became EU members in May 2004.