The Commission published today (27 January) its yearly reports on Romania and Bulgaria, the only two EU countries monitored in their efforts to improve their law-enforcement systems and to combat corruption. Romania’s report is positive, for a second consecutive year.
This year’s reports come at a time when the EU is faced with the migration crisis, and rising nationalism. This may explain the humdrum tone of the reports, apparently designed as not to add fuel to fire in the EU’s family feuds.
Bulgaria and Romania are monitored under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession. Eight years after their accession, the CVM is still ongoing, and this is the first report produced under the Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker.
In the case of Romania, the report is clearly positive. The country’s judicial system has been able to jail enough officials form a government, including a former prime minister. It has indicted the outgoing premier Victor Ponta under a criminal investigation, alleging forgery, complicity in tax evasion and money laundering allegedly committed while he was a lawyer.
“The track record of the key judicial and integrity institutions in addressing high-level corruption has remained impressive. This continued trend is a sign that Romania is developing sustainability in progressing towards the CVM objectives”, the Romania report said.
First Vice-President Timmermans said that over the last year Romania and Romanians have shown their willingness to fight corruption and to protect the independence of the judiciary.
Romanian citizens praised
Timmermans referred to the mass demonstrations following a fire in a Bucharest night club last November which took 45 lives and turned into protests against corruption and brought down Ponta’s government, to say that these issues now “mattered” for the Romanian citizens.
“Over the last year we have seen the professionalism, commitment and good track record of the judiciary and the anti-corruption prosecution and reforms being internalised. I am encouraged to see that Romania continues to make reforms and the positive trend continued in 2015. These efforts must be stepped up in 2016, in particular to prevent corruption and ensure that judges can continue to do their job properly,” Timmermans said.
But the report also refers to obstructions in the Romanian Parliament, where MPs have put into question the Criminal Codes reform, and regularly team up to protect lawmakers against being stripped of parliamentarian immunity.
In contrast, Romania’s southern neighbour Bulgaria was roundly criticised.
Just one day before the reports were published, Bulgaria’s ruling right-wing made an unprecedented demand for the resignation of the country’s top judiciary body after a series of scandals.
The government move largely eclipsed the report’s findings.
The 25-member Supreme Judicial Council (VSS) is Bulgaria’s top judiciary body responsible for all appointments in a much criticised system. VSS was embroiled in a series of scandals recently that opened a rift between its members.
Experts and the media criticised the body for its alleged dependence on political circles, leading to a lack of transparency on nominations and even nepotism in the appointment of top judges.
It is more than unusual that a government calls on the country’s top judiciary to resign.
Asked to comment this unprecedented move, a Commission official said the EU executive could not comment “a day-to-day thing”.
The report recommends an independent analysis of the wider reform of the prosecution office and to create a new anti-corruption law, including the establishment of a unified authority with a strong independent mandate to fight high-level corruption.
On Monday, Bulgaria came under fire from its major business partners yesterday (25 January) over its failure to strengthen the rule of law. The bilateral chambers of commerce of nine EU countries and the United States said that there was the “increasing impression, both locally and among foreign investors’ circles, that there is not enough rule of law in Bulgaria”.
The Commission report welcomed that Bulgaria amended its Constitution last December. But it observed that the amendments included some significant changes from the text originally proposed.
In December, Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov quit, accusing lawmakers of undermining his reform efforts.
Other initiatives have faced setbacks, most notably the anti-corruption strategy, the report further noted.
“The draft law intended to put in place a new unified anti-corruption authority has been rejected in the National Assembly. Although the government has announced its intention to resubmit an amended proposal, the rejection underlined a lack of political consensus behind the reform process”, the Commission observed.
On his last visit to Brussels on the occasion of the December EU summit, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said his government will request assistance from the Commission to help advance the reform of the judiciary.
“The Commission welcomes Bulgaria’s wish to draw on further technical assistance and expertise to support the reform process, and the Commission has put in place the necessary means,” Timmermans stated.
It remains unclear if the Commission has the intention to propose to member states that CVM for Romania be dropped any time soon. Journalists asked this question in many different ways, obtaining unclear answers each time.
When the Juncker Commission took office, it announced its intention that the CVM for Bulgaria and Romania be dropped during its mandate.