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Van Orden: Bulgaria on course for EU membership in a year's time

Euro-MP rapporteur encouraged by Bulgaria's progress towards EU membership

Mr Van Orden, the European Parliament's 'rapporteur' on Bulgarian accession to the European Union has outlined Bulgaria's progress in a debate in the European Parliament:

Mr President, it is only six weeks since this House last debated Bulgaria's progress towards European Union accession. I have been back to Bulgaria since then, as indeed has the President of Parliament. We met the President and the Prime Minister of Bulgaria and many ministers. I visited a children's home in an area that had been badly affected by floods and a factory that had benefited from EU funding. I had discussions with the Foreign Minister, the Interior Minister, the President of the Supreme Court and police chiefs, including those running the national organisation for combating organised crime. I also met the chairmen of key committees of the parliament and representatives of all political parties. None of them seemed to be under any illusion about the work that needs to be done, or indeed the urgency of addressing the areas that have been highlighted by the Commission and the Parliament as being still of serious concern. Many however, are increasingly alarmed that Bulgaria's accession is being caught up in the wider controversy over the future extent of the EU and over the EU budget.

Mr President, bearing in mind that I am otherwise speaking for my current political group in this debate, I hope you will excuse me if I make two personal comments on these matters.

Firstly, many of us are disappointed that following the defeat of the Constitution, the opportunity has not been seized to have a wide ranging and open discussion about the nature and direction of the EU in order to take full account of the real wishes of our citizens and make it more relevant to the needs of the 21st century.

Secondly, as Mr Barroso observed this morning, there is a structural problem in the budget. I am not sure that he and I would agree on what that problem is. To my mind, it is the fact that some 40% of the EU budget is spent on the common agricultural policy and it is also the fact that the United Kingdom, year on year for twenty years, has been paying double the amount in net terms into the EU budget, even with her abatement, in comparison with a country such as France that has a similar-sized economy.

Let me revert now to my rapporteur's role. The point is that accession countries such as Bulgaria should certainly not be disadvantaged because of those wider issues. The timing of accession should not be vulnerable to unrelated concerns about future enlargement. Let us remember that neither Bulgaria nor Romania form part of future enlargement rounds; they are part of the previous enlargement. Their accession is already secured. Indeed, their budgetary arrangements for the first two years after accession are also secure. I am sure the Commissioner will confirm this.

Bulgaria's financial provisions are fixed from 2007 to 2009 in the Accession Treaty, Title III, which was signed on 25 April this year. These determine the amounts Bulgaria will pay into the EU budget in various forms, as well as what she will receive in cohesion funding, nuclear decommissioning assistance, the transition facility, the Schengen facility, agriculture payments and other structural actions.

So, leaving aside any negative attitudes to enlargement in general that have begun to develop in some countries, what are the substantive obstacles to be overcome by Bulgaria in the next few months?

Firstly, the Accession Treaty must be ratified by all Member States. So far, only seven have done so, Parliament urges the remaining 18 Member States to ratify as soon as possible.

Secondly, there is the question of the precise timing of accession. Parliament supports the common objective of Bulgaria's accession to the EU on 1 January 2007, provided that certain matters of serious concern are dealt with. Without this firm target, a major incentive to increased effort by the Bulgarian authorities is removed. They are making an increased effort. I can report that in the past month a further six major legislative acts have progressed through the Bulgarian National Assembly and I am advised that key constitutional changes that we have called for will be presented to the National Assembly this year.

However, while legislative change is essential, I cannot re-emphasise too strongly the need for tangible and concrete outcomes. We must see the evidence of change, particularly in the vital areas of justice and policing and the fight against organised crime and corruption. It is this area, more than any other, that has been the focus of my report on behalf of Parliament. There are, of course, other areas of concern, including child welfare and the support for and integration of the Roma communities.

I commend my report to Parliament. It had the widest possible support in the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and I regret that the GUE/NGL Group has chosen to re-table amendments that were rejected by the committee. With the exception of my own Amendment 16, I do not recommend support for any other amendments.

I urge the Bulgarian authorities to take very seriously the need to deliver on reform. The changes are, of course, beneficial in themselves, not just as a prerequisite for EU membership. I ask the Commission to ensure that Parliament remains fully involved on a timely basis in any consideration of the use of safeguard clauses.

1 January 2007 is an achievable date for Bulgaria's accession to the European Union.

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