Romania and Bulgaria are the only two EU candidates left out of an announced "big bang" enlargement of the bloc scheduled for 2004, when 10 countries are likely to join the EU.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has said that Romania and Bulgaria will be given revised road maps for accession negotiations at an EU summit in December.
But Kuneva said last month that there is a "danger" that Bulgaria may be grouped with Romania despite Sofia's achieving what she called "much more advanced reforms."
Kuneva's Romanian counterpart, Hildegard Puwak, said her remarks "lacked fair play" and reaffirmed Bucharest's determination to join the EU by 2007.
Both Romania and Bulgaria are well behind the other candidates in enlargement preparations, having closed negotiations on the smallest number of chapters of the EU laws body, known as the "acquis communautaire."
Romania, with 28 chapters opened out of a total of 31 and only 13 closed, is trailing behind Bulgaria, which has opened 30 and closed 21 chapters. However, Bulgaria faces an additional obstacle in its accession efforts - its obsolete, Soviet-era Kozloduy nuclear-power plant, which generates some 40 percent of the country's electricity.
The EU regards four of the plant's six reactors as unsafe. Two are scheduled to close by the end of this year, while the newest two are considered safe. But the EU wants reactors three and four, each of which is more than 20 years old, closed by the end of 2006. Sofia maintains that after repeated upgrades, the two reactors have also become safe and refuses to close them by the deadline.
Kuneva last month threatened to refuse to sign the energy chapter in the EU negotiations - thus freezing Bulgaria's accession process - unless Brussels agrees to reconsider the fate of the two reactors. Analysts say the government's opposition is only meant to show Bulgarians - who are in favor of keeping the reactors open - that their government will not give in without a fight.
Romania and Bulgaria are still the poorest EU candidates, with average monthly incomes of some $100 and $125, respectively. Neither has yet to implement necessary macroeconomic reforms.
Furthermore, both countries are wrangling with widespread corruption, despite having established special bodies to fight sleaze.
In addition, both countries have had a history of difficult relations. Most of the disputes have been of a commercial or environmental nature, either regarding the number and location of bridges that should be built across the Danube, or air and water pollution along the river.
According to unofficial sources from Brussels, the European Commission is likely to recommend a target date of 2007 for both Romania and Bulgaria to join the EU.