Prodi pledges EU support to Bulgaria

SOFIA, Jan 15, 2000 -- (Reuters) European Commission President Romano Prodi praised Bulgaria's progress towards European Union membership on Friday, but urged it to do more and pledged to back its efforts with 1.8 billion Euros.

Addressing the Bulgarian parliament, Prodi lauded the ex-communist state's commitment to reform after a sweeping cabinet reshuffle last month which was partially aimed at facilitating talks with the EU.

"I am glad to note the government's renewed commitment to further economic reform, not only because this will enhance Bulgaria's accession prospects, but also because I am convinced it will greatly contribute to the welfare of the country," he said.

"We want to have success in the shortest period possible," Prodi told a news conference later.

He said two new financial instruments dealing with transport and environment, agriculture and rural development, would raise total grant funding to around 1.8 billion Euros for the next seven years.

Prodi is on a Balkan tour, visiting Bulgaria and Romania which were among six countries invited in November to start EU accession talks this year, and leaves for Croatia later on Friday.

He said formal negotiations would start in mid-February and concrete talks would commence in the third week of March.

Bulgaria's annual funding from the EU would double to around 260 million Euros, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen told the news conference.

Prodi praised Bulgaria's decision under EU pressure to close the four oldest reactors at its Soviet-era Kozloduy nuclear plant earlier than initially planned.

He made clear that the poor Balkan state of eight million people had a lot to do before it would be able to join the EU.

"There is no doubt that further efforts in economic reform, legal approximation and reform of public administration will be needed," he said.

Prodi said the EU "can and should" play a leading role in reconstructing the Balkans, adding that its role in pan-European security should also grow.

"As Europe takes on more responsibility for its own security and defense, it will play an increasingly important role in peacemaking and peacekeeping," he said.

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