Bulgaria’s ‘mea culpa’ as EU moves to suspend funding

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The leaders of Bulgaria and Romania have accepted criticism of the two countries’ performances in meeting EU standards on judicial reform and fight against corruption as fair. But financial sanctions amounting to hundreds of thousands of euro were hard to swallow in Sofia.

Bulgaria was the centre of attention when the reports were presented yesterday (23 July) at a low-key press event by two Commission spokespeople. Almost all the questions focused on Bulgaria because the EU plans to suspend roughly 500 million euro of funding to the country, while Romania escaped the attention of the media. Indeed, Romania benefited from a much shorter report and milder criticism. 

The Commission published two additional documents concerning Bulgaria – a report on the management of EU funds and a decision by the European executive to withdraw the right to manage EU financial assistance to two agencies in Bulgaria over corruption scandals. 

One key difference in the report concerns the Commission’s references to “the serious difficulties which the Bulgarian authorities are facing in making real headway in judicial reform and the fight against corruption and organised crime”. In the Romanian version, the Commission merely notes the “efforts which the Romanian government and authorities are making to reform the judicial system and investigate corruption”. But in both cases, the Commission states that “the need for verification and cooperation will continue for some time,” with a brief sentence added for Bulgaria: “This is a long-haul exercise.” 

Linguistic diplomacy 

Sources had informed EURACTIV of dramatic last-minute attempts to improve the language of the Bulgarian report (EURACTIV 23/07/08). However, few changes were actually made in comparison to leaked versions. Nevertheless, by removing or adding one or two words, Bulgaria obviously succeeded in softening an understating that the mafia is ruling the country. While in the leaked report, the text requires Bulgaria to “untangle the web of conflicting interests and apparent connection between the political class, business and organised crime,” the final version only points the finger at “conflicting interests and apparent connection between part of the political class, business and organised crime”. Another key sentence from the draft – “Bulgaria is at a cross-roads” – reads in the final version “Bulgaria presents a mixed picture”. The initial statement about “lack of results” was replaced by “the reform has not yet produced sufficient results”. 


Mea culpa 

Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said Bulgaria deserved to be criticised in the Commission’s report, the Bulgarian press reported. 

“There are grounds for criticism, to be honest,” Stanishev told the press in the Black Sea city of Varna. “The truth is Bulgaria is learning how to work with European money,” he added. 

The opposition has attacked the government, including over Bulgaria’s decline compared to Romania. A no-confidence motion is expected to be voted upon in Parliament today, but the coalition government controls 150 out of 240 MPs and is expected to survive. 

More interestingly, a poll showed that a majority of Bulgarians were siding with the Commission and believe that the EU should indeed freeze its subsidies. The perception among ordinary citizens, shows the study by the Alpha Research Institute, is that this money is not reaching them. Thus many Bulgarians welcome funding cuts as a way of hurting the corrupt political class. 

Zero tolerance’ 

In Romania, Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu was quoted by EURACTIV.ro as saying “zero tolerance” on corruption is the key to addressing the shortcomings hgihlighted by the Commission. 

“The report outlines a series of positive evolutions, of progress, showing that Romania is advancing in the EU. We are ready to pursue the zero tolerance policy with respect to those using their public function in order to get rich.” 

The leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Mircea Geoana, said the report provided clear confirmation of the failure of “the regime of (President) Basescu-Tariceanu” to combat corruption. 

“We are at the same level in combating corruption as 1998,” Geoana said. 

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov called for action following the publication of the report. "It is now necessary that the legislative, executive and judiciary fully rethink their actions up to now and undertake specific measures for addressing the weaknesses pointed out in the reports and for achieving results satisfying the Bulgarian society and our European partners. It is time, along with the adoption of laws, to put emphasis on their enforcement," Parvanov said. 

Romanian EU Commissioner Leonard Orban warned that what happened to Bulgaria is a very clear signal that the Commission will in no way hesitate to take the harshest measures should similar issues arise in his own country. Orban pointed out the major deficiency in Romania – the incapacity of the judiciary to advance on high-level corruption cases. 

Joseph Daul, the chairman of the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament, said the Commission's report on Bulgaria is extremely alarming both for that country and for all EU member states. The Commission has seen no real progress in the fight against organised crime and corruption 18 months after Bulgaria joined the EU, Daul said. 

On Romania, Daul welcomed the Commission's decision not to apply safeguard clauses to the country. "There has been progress in many areas but more is needed in areas like judicial reform and the fight against corruption," the EPP-ED leader said. 

MEP Elmar Brok (Germany, EPP-ED/CDU) also criticised Bulgaria, but was less generous to Romania than the EPP-ED leader. "The blocking of EU funds for Bulgaria is the right decision which was overdue. It is the only way to ensure the credibility of the EU enlargement process […] I observe the developments in the area of corruption and organised crime and Justice and Home Affairs in Bulgaria and Romania with great concern. The situation in both countries has become worse rather than better since their accession to the EU. However there are distinctions between them. I would like to call on the Commission to activate the safeguard clauses provided for in the accession treaties at the next possible opportunity." 

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption - and in the case of Bulgaria, the fight against organised crime. These shortcomings carried the risk that Bulgaria and Romania would not be able to correctly apply Community law and Bulgarians would not be able to fully enjoy their rights as EU citizens. 

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism was set up to assist both countries. The latest annual reports on Bulgaria and Romania were prepared by the EU executive's secretariat general under the authority of the Commission President Barroso, in agreement with Vice-President Barrot. 

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