BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Addressing an audience of dignitaries in Luxembourg in 2005, Bulgaria’s then prime minister extolled the virtues of European Union membership, declaring his nation ready to take its place at the heart of the continent.
“Bulgaria is returning politically to the family of European nations to which it has always belonged,” Simeon Saxe-Coburg announced as Bulgaria and Romania signed the documents that would bring them into the EU two years later, in 2007.
The rhetoric was full, matching the occasion, and heartfelt, with the memories of Soviet influence fresh in the minds of most Bulgarians and particularly Saxe-Coburg, the country’s child tsar before the monarchy was overthrown in 1946.
But eight years on from that upbeat spring day in Luxembourg, and as a divided Bulgaria prepares for parliamentary elections on May 12, the gap between the one-time aspirations of EU membership and the everyday reality of belonging grows wider.
Rather than feeling pulled into the heart of Europe, Bulgaria and Romania find themselves on the edge of the debate, with questions frequently raised by their EU partners about their commitment to the rule of law and willingness to crack down on corruption, organised crime and illegal migration.
Membership has not delivered a one-way ticket to democratic stability, economic growth and greater opportunity for all. Diplomats from other member states often quietly question the wisdom of allowing them in.
“The European Union was seen as some sort of golden rainbow on the horizon,” Amanda Paul, an east Europe expert at the European Policy Centre, a think tank, said of the image many Romanians and Bulgarians had in their minds before joining.
“As a whole I think both Romanian and Bulgaria have benefited from membership, but they still have significant democratic deficits,” she said, explaining that if citizens wanted to understand the gap between expectation and reality, they should look first to home, not to Brussels.
“They should be more disappointed in their own leaders and politicians rather than in the EU institutions and what the EU has been able to do for them.”
Whether living in their home countries on the southeastern periphery of Europe or working in Brussels, Romanians and Bulgarians increasingly have a sense of isolation.
While per capita incomes have risen steadily since joining the EU - by around 30 percent between 2006-2011 for both, according to IMF data - and opportunities to move and work across Europe have increased, there is still not a feeling of being fully integrated into the union of European states.
Romania and Bulgaria remain outside Schengen, the agreement that allows for the free movement of citizens across 26 European countries, and plans to join the euro currency are on hold for the immediate future.
When either country pops up for discussion in EU debates, it is all too often about whether they are meeting targets for bolstering their judicial systems or doing enough to combat smuggling and limit the influx of migrants from further east.
“We are second-class citizens of the union and we are being left out of major decisions taken in Brussels,” said Ion Miciu, a 64-year-old engineer living in Bucharest.
“Our politicians are incompetent and have not fought in the last six years for Romania to have a more important voice.”
At EU summits, the leaders of Romania and Bulgaria have just the same opportunity as any other head of state or government to speak up, and often do. But when it comes to decision-making, especially during the last three years of economic crisis, Sofia and Bucharest barely figure.
“You see two countries that have to spend quite a lot of negotiating capital and goodwill on key issues for them, like Schengen membership,” said one EU diplomat familiar with dealing with both and who has seen the limits of their influence.
“While they are certainly working hard, it just gives them less room to manoeuvre.”
Another hurdle they face is getting experienced staff to drive their diplomatic efforts. As the newest of the EU’s 27 member states - at least until Croatia joins in July - it takes time to generate critical mass and influence in meetings, not just at the ambassadorial table, but across all levels of the bureaucracy and the myriad policy files diplomats handle.
“When it comes to major decisions, it’s a big boy’s game in being aggressive to steer the little circle that makes decisions,” said another diplomat from an older European power.
By way of example, they pointed to negotiations earlier this year over the EU’s 1 trillion euro long-term budget, a large portion of which is spent on development funds for poorer EU countries, making it critical for Romania and Bulgaria.
“When it comes to the budget, Romania and Bulgaria only got scraps,” the diplomat said, lamenting their lack of influence.
For their part, officials from both countries said their voice was always present in EU discussions, and questioned why the two were being treated like second-class citizens when it came to Schengen, probably their biggest frustration.
In Sunday’s election in Bulgaria, the centre-right party lead by former prime minister Boiko Borisov is expected to come out on top, although it may not have sufficient votes to form a government on its own and has said it won’t join a coalition.
That raises the prospect of further political uncertainty in the country, and raises doubts about its economic programme too, both of which will muffle its voice in Brussels.
“We’re effectively dealing with a Wild West country,” said an EU official who handles east Europe, voicing doubts about Bulgaria’s ability to enforce the law and live by democratic norms.
With a “what can you do?” shrug of the shoulders, the official said it wasn’t possible to turn back history, that Romania and Bulgaria were members of the European Union. Other states had to accept that reality and make it work, however challenging it may be.
For Carmen Pop, the 32-year-old owner of a small Romanian restaurant in Brussels, EU membership is a double-edged sword. It has allowed her to work in the capital of Europe and send money home to her parents. But it is far from a perfect world.
“The advantages of the EU community are not for Romanians,” she said with frustration. “You are part of the community but you can’t work like other Europeans. We always carry the label of being Romanian or Bulgarian.”
Additional reporting by Ioana Patran in Bucharest and Justyna Pawlak and Luke Baker in Brussels; writing by Luke Baker; editing by Janet McBride