The European Parliament has given the thumbs-up to Bulgaria and Romania to join the European bloc in 2007, but with conditions. The countries still have to institute wide-ranging reforms to satisfy EU accession criteria.
Romania and Bulgaria are eager to fly the EU flag in 2007
The vote on Wednesday in Strasbourg cleared the way for the second expansion of the EU in eastern Europe. Both Bulgaria and Romania are expected to sign the accession treaty on April 25. Membership for the two, if they implement agreed upon economic and political reforms, is set for Jan. 1, 2007.
"Romania has made a crucial step towards its EU membership in 2007," Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu told reporters in the capital Bucharest. "After the signing of the membership treaty we will become a real accession country."
After signing the accession treaty, officials from the two countries will be allowed to participate in all EU meetings as observers.
Membership will also secure a place in the prosperous European club for two countries where economic output per capita is below 40 percent of EU average, even though their economies are growing quickly.
The parliament in Strasbourg voted with large majorities to back both countries' accession. The assembly voted 522 - 70, with 69 abstentions, to back Bulgaria's EU entry, Romania's entry got a vote of 497-93, with 71 abstentions.
Romanian parliament building
Still, there were serious doubts about whether the countries would implement the reforms the bloc requires before the 2007 date. They include strengthening administration systems, beefing up border controls and introducing competition policy measures.
Rampant corruption is a concern for both countries, but particularly for Romania, and some Green members of parliament doubted that reforms could be carried out in time.
Green parliamentarian Daniel Cohn-Bendit pointed to the EU legislature's own report on Romania that said: "High-level corruption, despite recent efforts, continues to undermine the country's socio-economic and political life."
"If we look at matters such as press freedom and corruption and we take seriously everything we've read in the reports, no one can say that Romania in its current state is ready to join," he said.
While parliament rejected a motion by some minority groups to delay the votes until after the European Commission publishes a report in November about the countries' preparation for membership, it did for the first time in an enlargement procedure invoke a protection clause which states that the union could postpone the accession until 2008 if the countries did not make satisfactory progress in implementing reforms.
Both countries missed the first wave of the EU's eastwards enlargement in May because they were slow to introduce political and economic reforms after the collapse of communism in 1989. Romania, with its population of 22 million, is seen as worse prepared for membership and more corrupt than Bulgaria, which has eight million citizens.
Challenges for Sofia
But Bulgaria is not without its hurdles to overcome. The country's ailing judiciary is considered in need of restructuring, especially to secure effective crime fighting and a favorable business environment. It has also been criticized for not integrating its minority communities, in particular its Roma population, which numbers 800,000.
Bulgaria's relative poverty worries some EU officials. The average pension is 60 leva, or around 30 euros a month; the average wage is 150 leva, about 75 euros.
"We will need 20, 30 years, even as an EU member, to reach the normal EU level," said Petar-Emil Mitev, a sociology professor.
Despite that, Bulgaria's citizens are enthusiastic about joining the European club, since for many of them it means a chance to get on a par with their neighbors. "Our examples are the former socialist countries like the Czech Republic and Poland," said one woman on the streets of the capital. "We're convinced that we'll be able to catch up."