The 10th edition of the monitoring report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (see background) is in theory of a "technical" nature, with a more detailed overview expected for the summer.
However, the EU executive apparently took a more innovative approach by formulating five recommendations for each country, something it normally does in the more detailed summer reports.
The Commission, for instance, calls on civic groups to get involved in Bulgaria's judicial and investigative oversight. For Romania, it recommends creating a framework of cooperation with civil society to monitor progress in judicial reform.
As Romanian Justice Minister Cătălin Predoiu said three weeks ago, the Commission was very appreciative of "the successes of the last months". He mentioned that Romania had received praise for its new Civil Code, due to come into force on 1 June, as well as on new measures on disciplinary responsibility of magistrates. In January, the county's Supreme court sentenced Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister (2000-2004), to two years of imprisonment for illegal financing of his election campaign.
In January, Bulgaria sentenced Efim Chaushev, a former deputy foreign minister, for an offence committed after he left office. He was given a 42-month sentence for involvement in the return a stolen car to its owner, a Turkish businessman, in exchange for ransom.
Romania outperforms Bulgaria
As on the previous occasion last July, the report on Romania appears more positive. The Commission identifies in Romania a number of areas where "further action is needed", while in the case of Bulgaria "stronger action" is required in a number of fields to implement the Commission's recommendations.
Asked if the Commission had any instruments to punish Bulgaria for its disappointing progress, spokesperson Mark Gray said that the way the EU executive saw the reports was not in terms of sanctions, but rather of assisting civil societies in achieving the goals they identify themselves.
"At the end of the day, the way we perceive these reports is actually to go back and look at what the citizens in the two countries are looking for. We very often see that the biggest driver for reform actually comes from the citizens themselves," he said.
Gray also made reference to the governments, but appeared to emphasise on the role of citizens in delivering on reforms.
"The citizens of those two countries are pushing for reform, and I think we very much see the Commission's role as helping both the Bulgarian and Romanian citizens and the two governments to deliver on the commitments made at the time of accession," he said.
According to analysts, Bulgaria and Romania had a more painful transition to democracy and a market economy, compared to the other EU newcomers. Even today, the countries' civil societies remain weak and play a limited role in the system of checks and balances.
Prosecution stays idle
A clear example is the situation around elections in Bulgaria, marred by reports about vote buying and electoral fraud, such as substituting sacks containing ballots.
Despite reports that such practices were widespread during the October local and presidential election, no culprits were prosecuted, largely because of a widespread fear to testify.
There were earlier mentions of vote buying in Commission reports on Bulgaria, but it's the first time that such a document speaks of alleged "electoral fraud".
"We treat it seriously, but it's not up to us to step in that process," a Commission expert said, adding that it was up to Bulgaria's prosecution services to follow suit.
The Bulgarian prosecution was also criticised for lack of reaction on EU funds' fraud. Investigations in one important cross-border case were not pursued by the Bulgarian prosecution, although they were under prosecution in Germany, the report says.
Bulgaria's mea culpa
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov recognised that the report on his country was negative and said his interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov was to be blamed, not because of his performance, but because of his constant attacks on the judiciary.
Indeed, Tsvetanov, who is the number two in the cabinet, has repeatedly blamed the judiciary for being unable to punish arrested criminals. The judiciary often replied that the evidence provided by the police is not good enough for the courts.
In Romania, where the government resigned on Monday (6 February) and attempts to form a new cabinet were ongoing at the time of announcing the reports, the CVM report received less attention. Romania's European Affairs Minister Leonard Orban, a former EU Commissioner, said this was "the third consecutive positive report" on his country.
In the Netherlands, the country that vetoed the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen border-free area, European Affairs Minister Ben Knapen recognised that the report on Romania showed improvements.
"Progress is visible in both countries, especially Romania. It's a step forward, but many more need to be taken," he was quoted as saying.
Knapen reiterated that in order to lift its veto, the Netherlands wanted to see two consecutive positive reports.