EU's Second-Class Citizens

In areas where the European Commission sees Romania and Bulgaria lagging EU standards, the acceding countries will face continued scrutiny and limitations

Romania and Bulgaria will in some respects still be treated by the EU as if they were only candidate members, with the European Commission even slapping a painful "third country" status on Sofia in the area of aviation safety.

Although the two Balkan countries are planning big festivities to celebrate their entry into the EU on 1 January, much of the glamour of membership is overshadowed by the prospect of continued Brussels tutelage - even after accession - in areas where the newcomers are still seen to be lagging on EU standards.

Commission officials will still be prying into their Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts' work to monitor "progress," particularly in the areas of crime and corruption, food safety issues and - as it emerged just before the Christmas holidays - aviation safety in Sofia's case.

Brussels on Wednesday (20 December) reported "very serious deficiencies" in the checking by Bulgaria's Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA) of the airworthiness and maintenance of the country's airfleet, leading commission officials to conclude that "there was no other choice than to limit the privileges of Bulgaria of entering the EU."

Concretely, the so-called safeguard clause triggered by Brussels means that Bulgarian airlines will not be seen as EU companies, but as third country operators, who have no automatic right to - for example - conducting flights within or between member states.

Meanwhile, commission officials are looking into the airworthiness of the Bulgarian airfleet, which still has many planes of the Antonov brand built in the former Soviet Union.

More than one hundred Soviet-era planes "have no airworthiness certificate" and the commission does not know whether these planes are grounded, an official said while reassuring travellers that an "important number of those do not carry passengers."

The official warned Sofia that the EU will by February update its airlines blacklist and that Bulgarian companies "which do not comply with the criteria will have to be banned" - a move which would see Bulgarian carriers grouped on the list of shady firms like Kyrgyzstan's Fab-Air and Congo's Mango Airways.

Asked whether it is in the meantime still safe for passengers to hop onto a Bulgarian plane, the official said that due to the safeguards imposed, it remained up to individual EU member states to decide whether or not to continue bilateral aviation deals with Sofia.

AS IF ACCESSION NEVER HAPPENEDMeanwhile, both Sofia and Bucharest are preparing to receive continuing "peer review" missions - checks by EU officials of administrative progress on the ground - in the area of justice and home affairs.

Bulgaria in particular is seen by Brussels as unfit in dealing with crime and corruption, with both states having to meet concrete benchmarks in order to avoid the triggering of safeguard clauses at a later stage - possibly the non-recognition of Romanian or Bulgarian court verdicts in the EU.

As if accession never really happened, Sofia and Bucharest will be confronted with roughly the same instruments of Brussels "monitoring" known from past years, such as regular progress reports and visits by EU officials.

SECOND-CLASS?The regime put on the bloc's two newest members is notably stricter than that faced by the 10 states which entered the EU in 2004, which only saw some export restrictions on agricultural products similar to those faced by Romania and Bulgaria.

But despite the measures on Sofia and Bucharest risking to give them a "second class" EU label, the spokesman for commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso described the treatment as business as usual.

"There are no surprises here. This is the result of the accession mechanisms we have... the commission, Romania and Bulgaria and the [current EU] member states have all agreed to these measures."