By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Brussels
The European Commission is to recommend that Romania and Bulgaria join the European Union on 1 January next year, rather than in 2008.
Bulgaria and Romania are expected to join the EU a year early
The draft report - which will only be published on Tuesday, but has been seen by the BBC - says both countries have made progress in their preparations.
But it also raises the prospect of sanctions if they do not make further reforms after joining the EU.
While the report removes the threat of a one year's delay, which was used to press for reforms in the last few months, it aims to keep up the pressure for further reforms by spelling out the toughest entry conditions in the bloc's history.
The Commission has not wielded the biggest stick, but it is keeping other sticks in reserve.
"It's 100% 2007," a senior EU official said, "but sanctions are still possible later."
The report confirms that "Bulgaria and Romania have made further progress to complete their preparations for membership, demonstrating their capacity to apply EU principles and legislation from 1 January, 2007".
However, corruption and organised crime remain a source of major concern, especially regarding Bulgaria, as are food safety standards and setting up the payment agencies for EU farm subsidies.
The report goes on to list in great detail all the appropriate measures the EU executive is prepared to take "unless the countries take immediate corrective action".
In the most sensitive area, the fight against corruption and judiciary reform, EU officials believe progress in Romania is now irreversible, with corruption charges against leading politicians, including the former prime minister, and an increasing number of investigations into customs officials, judges and even the army chief of staff.
Bulgaria has also launched investigations into top politicians, officials and prosecutors, but with fewer concrete results. Moreover, it has failed to solve any of about 200 Mafia-style killings in recent years.
The report sets Bulgaria six specific benchmarks, and Romania four.
Unless they make progress, both countries will face safeguard measures, suspending the recognition of arrest warrants and decisions made by their courts in the rest of the EU.
EU colours have been springing up all over Romania
Bulgaria has to amend the constitution to remove any ambiguity regarding the independence and accountability of the judicial system,
Under other benchmarks, it has to:
- conduct "professional, non-partisan investigations into allegations of high-level corruption"
- take further measures to prevent corruption in particular at the border and in local government"
- and implement "a strategy to fight organised crime, focusing on serious crime, money laundering as well as the systematic confiscation of assets of criminals"
Romania has similar benchmarks on fighting corruption, but it also has to establish, as promised, an "integrity agency" to verify the assets and potential conflicts of interest of senior officials.
In an unprecedented move, both countries will continue to be monitored even after they become full EU members.
It is called euphemistically a "mechanism to assist and verify progress after accession," to avoid the impression that Bulgaria and Romania will become second class EU members, but both are expected to report to Brussels every six months. The first report is due by 31 March.
That is also a deadline for establishing fully functional payment systems for EU farm aid.
Beyond that date, the European Commission warns it will withhold a quarter of the money due to Bulgarian and Romanian farmers, worth hundreds of millions of euros next year. The cuts could take effect for a year or even longer.
"This is a first," an EU official said, "It's a serious inducement to get their house in order."
The EU will also keep the ban on pork produced in Romania and Bulgaria, due to continuing outbreaks of swine fever.
Concerns about inadequate systems to deal with mad cow disease and to process milk could lead to other restrictions, dealing a severe blow to the large farm sectors in both countries.
The European Commission may also restrict Bulgaria's access to the EU's internal aviation market, unless the country improves air safety standards.
Bulgarian-registered aircraft and carriers could be banned from flying in or out of the EU.
Message to others
On 1 January, the Bulgarian and Romanian prime ministers are expected to celebrate together on a bridge over the river Danube, which marks the border between the two countries.
The EU will have completed its expansion into the former communist bloc, after 10 other countries joined in 2004.
But for the EU, it is less a celebration than a test.
Most restrictions listed in the report had been mentioned before, but they were neither spelled out so clearly, nor used for the previous wave of enlargement.
They are meant to reassure an increasingly sceptical public opinion, especially in the four EU countries that are yet to ratify the accession treaty - Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium.
But they also send a clear message to Turkey and other candidates in the Balkans that the EU will think twice before admitting any more countries.