Commission reads sermon No. 8 to Romania, Bulgaria

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For the eighth time since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU on 1 January 2007, the European Commission today (18 February) unveiled its regular six-month assessment of the two countries' progress on judicial reform, the fight against corruption and organised crime. The overarching demand remains that Sofia and Bucharest must do more.

Unsurprisingly, Romania and Bulgaria were commended for a number of steps taken, but also criticised for persistent deficiencies. As always, the winter reports are of a technical nature, while the summer assessment, normally due in September, takes a more political approach.

As a Commission insider told EURACTIV, Bulgaria and Romania, which former Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn used to describe within his close circle as "the R&B countries", remain a special case in the EU concerto.

Romania and Bulgaria are R&B, but it's not clear who is rhythm and who is blues, Rehn reportedly used to tell his close collaborators.

Indeed, during the four years that have elapsed since their accession, some of the reports have appeared to indicate that one country was making more progress than its neighbour. Such peer pressure has been discretely promoted by the Commission.

This time, however, no clear-cut leader can be determined. It seems like the Commission has been at pains to be more diplomatic than ever, after France and Germany recently called for Romania and Bulgaria's accession to the EU's borderless Schengen area to be delayed while deficiencies under the bloc's Cooperation and Verification Mechanism continue to persist (see 'Background').

Romania was commended for having opened corruption investigations against a number of high-level defendants, such as MEP Gigi (George) Becali, and former ministers Tudor Chiuariu, Victor Babiuc and Zsolt Nagy. At the same time, the Commission regretted that the Romanian parliament had voted against searching a personal computer in an ongoing investigation into former minister Monica Iacob Ridzi.

For several years, Romania has been criticised over the fact that its MPs persistently veto any attempt to strip a parliamentarian of their judicial immunity in order to be prosecuted.

Romania is commended for having adopted a revised law concerning its National Integrity Agency (ANI). Last April, Romania's Constitutional Court declared as anti-constitutional the main prerogatives of the ANI, a body established at the recommendation of Brussels. The crisis was overcome by a new law on the ANI, adopted at a special session of parliament convened at the request of President Traian Basecu.

However, the Commission now says that the efficiency of the new legal framework still needs to be demonstrated.

Regarding Bulgaria, the EU executive hailed the efforts of the police to tackle organised crime through police raids and arrests, but lamented that these activities had led to few indictments, and that the collection of evidence by the police remained deficient.

The Commission also regretted acquittals in some emblematic cases of high-level corruption, such as the recent acquittal of Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Movement of Rights and Freedoms, a Turkish ethnic party represented in parliament. Dogan, who was indicted for having received a consultancy fee of one million euros, was acquitted last Monday. The Bulgarian media largely condemned the court's decision as a fiasco of a first court case of political corruption in the country.

The Commission also welcomed the establishment of BORKOR, a new anti-corruption project (the acronym stands for fight against corruption). The launch of BORKOR was officially announced last Wednesday, which would appear to indicate that the Bulgarian authorities were in a hurry to please the Commission.

As for a recent scandal concerning leaked wiretaps in Bulgaria, the Commission urged the country's authorities to use eavesdropping only in connection with serious crime and with prior authorisation from a judge.

Regarding illegal financing of political parties, it urged Bulgaria to make sure that the recommendations in the Council of Europe's specialised GRECO group report, dated 1 October 2010, are properly followed up.

Illegal financing of political parties, often via fraud and organised crime, is widespread in Bulgaria. Vote buying has become a common phenomenon in Bulgaria in recent years, with impoverished people, especially among the Roma minority, selling their vote for small amounts of money.

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Romania said on Friday that it felt encouraged by the European Commission's "positive" report on its progress in judiciary reforms and the fight against corruption.

"This is a positive report, maybe the best we have obtained since the monitoring system was established" in 2007, when the Balkan country joined the EU, Romanian Justice Minister Catalin Predoiu said, quoted by AFP.

"But we should not delude ourselves: all problems have not been solved yet," he added.

Predoiu welcomed the EU executive's conclusion regarding the authorities' "proven political will to go ahead with the reforms" and called on all political parties to join in this effort.

"It is important to maintain the positive trends and for this political support is crucial," he said.

"Romania's politicians must choose between European modernity and post-Communism past, between justice and injustice, between integrity and corruption," Predoiu stressed.

The Commission's report on Bulgaria is "the third positive one," Bulgarian Justice Minister Margarita Popova was quoted by Dnevnik as saying.

The current centre-right government led by Boyko Borissov took office in July 2009.

"The objective spirit of the report is the best incentive to continue the reforms," the country's highest judicial court stated.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, problems also remained regarding the fight against organised crime.

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards. These allow the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds.

However, since 1 January 2010, three years after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, Brussels no longer has the power to trigger the clause.

On 13 September EU countries decided to extend monitoring of Romania and Bulgaria for another year.

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