Why the EU is right to reject Eastern European accession appeals

Why the EU is right to reject Eastern European accession appeals

In the last week, reports that Russia is planning to attack Moldova in order to open up a new front in the war against Ukraine have been making their way round Europe. The growing murmurings of Putin taking action in the pro-Russian region of Transnistria have reignited the debate surrounding Moldova’s accession to the European Union.

After witnessing the extent of Russian brutality in Ukraine, it is hard to put emotions aside and deny the request of a country that is facing the imminent threat of suffering the same fate. But so far, the response to membership requests by Moldova and Georgia has been similar to that which followed Ukraine’s accession request: warm support, not least among the public and politicians, but no rush. And for good reason: the last time countries were admitted into the EU’s fold based on false idealism, namely Romania and Bulgaria, the outcome was less than stellar and remains a continuous thorn in the EU’s side.

The pitfall of emotional lensing 

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger was one of the first and most vocal supporters of Ukraine’s EU bid as he called on Brussels to develop a “special track” for the country. It’s unclear what this approach would entail in practice, but Heger emphasized that looking solely at economic indicators – a key theme in the EU’s acquis Communautaire, the set of laws and rules all members and prospective members must adhere to – is inappropriate in times of war.

Support for a “fast track” option also came from Poland’s President Duda arguing that “Candidate status should be granted immediately and membership talks should start immediately after.” Yet such an approach would set a dangerous precedent in hollowing out the acquis, and make EU membership an inherent right rather than a privilege. This, however, didn’t stop Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to enthusiastically assert that Ukraine “are one of us and we want them in.”

Luckily, most EU countries have looked at the Ukraine situation rationally, rather than through the lens of emotion. Following the March 11 Versailles Summit, the EU-27 agreed that while Ukraine is part of the European family, it would receive no special treatment. Evidently, France, Germany, the Netherlands and other Western EU countries got their way in urging caution on accepting Ukraine into the EU.

Perhaps the decisionmakers in Paris and Berlin thought of the continuous problems besetting Bulgaria and Romania, where European integration remains stymied by corruption and oligarchic structures even 15 years after their accession. It emerged in 2016 that the 2007 accession of these countries was pushed through at a faster pace than should be possible in the face of stringent EU membership procedures. That decision is now viewed as premature, and EU officials were forced to admit that neither was ready for membership.

Bitter Bulgarian experience

Today Bulgaria ranks 78th out of 180 countries according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Just a year ago it was in 69th place, suggesting corruption is accelerating in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – despite Sofia’s perennial promise to crack down on graft. Instead, Bulgaria’s anti-corruption bodies, such as the state prosecutor, are increasingly being used as political tools against opposition parties.

A significant amount of this corruption concerns EU funding. According to conservative estimates up to 15% of EU money gets defrauded, making EU fund fraud comparable to the largest markets for organised crime such as human trafficking. Last year, the EU’s anti-fraud office (OLAF) instituted a criminal probe into Bulgaria’s Ministry of the Interior for alleged tender fraud relating to a €6 million allocation from the EU.

If fraud and the rule of law are an issue, then the state of media freedom – among the most important normative aspects of the European Union – should be keeping Brussels up at night. Bulgaria ranks lower than any other European country for press freedom, which is inevitable in a media landscape that has come to be dominated by oligarchs like no other economic sector.

Consider the case of Ivo Prokopiev, a media mogul from a politically well-connected family from which he benefitted greatly during Bulgaria’s post-socialist privatization frenzy of the 1990s. His media conglomerate, Economedia now holds dozens of publications, including the highly influential Capital economics magazine.

Prokopiev has been shown to use his media holdings to carefully control the reporting as well as the information on his business ventures for his own ends. For instance, in 2012, Bulgaria’s media widely reported that a mine operated by Kaolin Mining Group – at that time Prokopiev held a significant stake in the firm – was polluting the drinking water in a nearby village. No such information made it into in any of Economedia’s papers.

Romanian reforms

Since then, the big publishing houses, including Economedia, have fought against greater transparency in the publishing sector, with the result that media freedom is steadily declining in Bulgaria. In that sense, the fight of vested interests against much needed reforms is a theme replicated in Romania, where endemic corruption is at problematic levels.

Uneven progress notwithstanding, Romania was losing 15% of its national GDP to corruption in 2019, and  polls show that the vast majority of Romanians believe corruption to be the reason behind delays in building critical infrastructure. Since entering the EU, rule of law and judicial reform have advanced little – in fact, in 2021 Romania’s Constitutional Court rejected the primacy of EU law, following a directive by the European Court of Justice that the highest Romanian court’s rulings be ignored if they facilitate corruption.

It follows a troubling series of judicial reforms by the Romanian government that were widely seen as undermining the independence of the courts, and shielding corrupt elites from prosecution.

Resisting the pressure

Fifteen years following Romania’s and Bulgaria’s EU accession, Brussels has its hands sufficiently full keeping its house in order. Clearly, adding new members such as Moldova, Georgia or even Ukraine to the mix would make the situation impossible to handle, especially given their endemic problems surrounding good governance and corruption.

While the emotional appeal is undeniable, it should not be forgotten that there is a path to EU membership – a carefully considered path – that countries must complete before being admitted into the EU. The examples of Romania and Bulgaria are a careful reminder of what happens when shortcuts are pursued, with rushed membership decisions doing more harm than good.

Image credit: President of Ukraine/Flickr

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