By Jan Repa
BBC Europe analyst
Living standards in Romania and Bulgaria remain low
As expected, the European Commission has confirmed that Bulgaria and Romania are on track to join the European Union in 2007.
But it has criticised widespread corruption and other malpractices, and recommended a "safeguard clause" which could delay membership for a year if there is insufficient improvement.
Bulgaria and Romania - with a joint population of 30 million - were the poorest of the former Soviet satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe.
While the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia all joined the EU on 1 May, Bulgaria and Romania were told to wait.
Bulgaria completed its formal negotiations in June. Romania still has several dossiers outstanding, on issues such as environmental protection, competition rules and the supervision of EU law.
In Nato's footsteps
EU sources say they hope both countries will be in a position to sign EU membership treaties, together, early next year.
The treaties will then have to be ratified both by the applicants and by each of the EU's existing 25 member states. If all goes well, Bulgaria and Romania could join in 2007.
This next phase of enlargement would push the European Union down deep into the Balkan peninsula, giving existing member Greece a direct land link with the rest of the EU.
It would also place a continuous belt of EU territory between the countries of the former Soviet Union and the strife-torn western Balkans, which are likely to remain outside the EU for some time to come.
Here the EU is following Nato's trail, as Bulgaria and Romania joined the Western military alliance last March.
Both countries have made economic progress since the chaotic conditions of the 1990s.
Although the level of inward investment remains modest, Bulgaria has achieved a large measure of financial stability; Romania's economy has been growing for five consecutive years.
The Romanians can take pleasure in the fact that the European Commission has finally granted their country the status of a "functioning market economy" - accorded to Bulgaria a year ago.
Nevertheless, in both countries, general living standards remain low, and the public is getting impatient.
If Bulgaria and Romania fail to make sufficient progress in tackling serious problems, their entry could be delayed.
Corruption is endemic and affects virtually all areas of life.
EU officials point out that while low-level corruption is sometimes punished, very few senior officials ever face the full rigour of the law.
Legal processes are slow and the judiciary itself is seriously compromised.
Pessimists argue that informal patron-client relationships, influence-peddling, and the soliciting and granting of favours have been part of the culture since the days of Ottoman Empire, if not earlier.
The European Commission also criticises the abuse of media freedom in Romania - where journalists, especially in the provinces, can fall victim to violence - as well as the trafficking of women.
Bulgaria has been urged to improve the situation of its Gypsy minority.
European Union membership will bring economic challenges in the form of keener commercial competition.
But poorer members can also expect to receive financial aid from richer members.
Here many Bulgarians and Romanians are likely to be disappointed.
The last round of EU enlargement in May is proving expensive, and wealthier countries such as Britain and Germany are saying they cannot afford to pay much more.
The next big EU argument will almost certainly be about the budget.