This January marks 15 years since both Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union – with a decade and a half of successes and setbacks.
The two former communist states both became EU members some three years later than the main 2004 accession wave of other Eastern European Iron Curtain states.
Romania and Bulgaria have seen a slow but steady rise in living standards over the past 15 years, as well as many turning points in the implementation of reforms in every area of public life, from the economy to a much-needed overhaul of the judicial systems.
The antiquated and rigid bureaucratic system, as well as a culture of clientelism and cheating with European funding, have clouded the overall picture of accession for the couple.
Still, the two countries managed to absorb tens of billions of euros from Brussels — money that was used to build new infrastructure and expand their economies.
According to the European Commission Representation in Romania, Romania has received €62 billion in EU funds and paid €21 billion into the EU budget over the 15 years of its EU membership.
“Economically, Romania is a net beneficiary of European funding,” said Ramona Chiriac, head of the European Commission’s representation in Romania, at a press event.
“A simple calculation gives a positive balance of 41 billion euros. But I want to emphasize that it’s not just about money, it’s about European solidarity. I would like to point out that European funding is everywhere in Romania, they are an integral part of the country’s development over these 15 years.”
Although both Bulgaria and Romania still have some of the lowest wages in the EU, their GDP grew significantly. It has doubled for Bulgaria and almost tripled for Romania.
However, both countries are still at the bottom of the EU league in terms of wages, transport infrastructure, health and education.
Bulgaria is still the poorest member of the EU, followed by Romania. Labor productivity and competitiveness are the lowest in both countries.
According to the Euro Health Consumer Index, the healthcare systems of both countries have regularly been rated as the worst in the EU in recent years.
According to Eurostat, Romania (€661 per inhabitant) and Bulgaria (€626 per inhabitant) spend less on their healthcare system than any other EU country and are far behind leaders such as Luxembourg, Sweden and Denmark, each with over €5,500 per inhabitant per year in healthcare expenditure .
The European Commission’s latest health report also puts the south-eastern European nations at the bottom in terms of the overall lifespan of their citizens. Romanians and Bulgarians are now dying even younger than before.
However, EU membership has helped the two countries stay on course.
It is very likely that European Commission oversight helped Romania maintain a functioning rule of law system, particularly during the 2017-2019 protests. which drew the wrath of Brussels, which warned Romania against moving away from the rule of law and against EU norms.
EU membership has offset the corruption tendencies of their political classes, but at the same time the two countries have not yet been admitted to the Schengen area.
In Romania, officials say the country has been ready to join Schengen for years.
Although Bulgaria and Romania now enjoy the backing of the EU Parliament, Bulgaria and Romania’s attempt to join the control-free travel area has met a bumpy road, according to a recent report.
After being endorsed by the European Parliament in June 2011, the Council of Ministers rejected it in September of the same year – with the French, Dutch and Finnish governments citing concerns about shortcomings in anti-corruption measures and the fight against organized crime.
Romania and Bulgaria are also not part of the euro zone, although they have great interest in joining.
Romania has moved back and forth at various stages of the accession process over the past 15 years since it became part of the EU, outlining plans and setting numerous deadlines for joining the eurozone.
The country is lagging behind in its willingness to introduce the single currency. Romania has previously set 2024 as the deadline for joining the eurozone, but the chances of that happening are slim, so officials pushed that deadline back to 2027-2028.
On the other hand, Bulgaria was included in the exchange rate mechanism (ERM II) – the first step on the way to the euro.
Officials in Bulgaria set January 1, 2024 as the date to join the eurozone. Government officials said there would be no transition period and that the local currency and the euro would circulate simultaneously for a month, with the Bulgarian lev being phased out in early February 2024.