Bulgaria, Romania remain under Commission scrutiny

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Having consistently made ‘technical’ progress, Bulgaria and Romania need help to crack down on corruption, the European Commission said on 22 July with the publication of its annual monitoring reports, pledging further support while the two EU newcomers remain under scrutiny.

“Cross-party political support” is needed to deal with high-profile corruption cases in Romania, where the country’s parliament is seen as providing shelter from prosecution to politicians, and “stronger political support” is expected from the new Bulgarian government in fighting corruption and organised crime, the reports state. 

The two carefully-worded eight-page reports on each country, coupled with two 16-page supporting documents, convey the message that the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), put in place with the two countries’ EU accession in January 2007, is starting to bear fruit. 

For Romania, the Commission notes that the country’s authorities have reacted effectively to concerns raised by previous assessments (EURACTIV 13/02/09), while in the case of Bulgaria, a “positive change of attitude” is seen. In the recent past, the country was in such a state of conflict with the EU executive that it leaked confidential EU papers to the press (EURACTIV 17/07/09). 

As for Bulgaria, the Commission sets out 21 tasks that must be carried out, ranging from developing an integrated strategy against organised crime and corruption to publishing all court decisions. In the case of Romania, the to-do list consists of 16 items, from adopting new civil and criminal procedure codes to ensuring that parliamentarians are not excluded from criminal investigations. 

Carrot or stick? 

The EU executive made it plain that monitoring would stay in place until all law enforcement deficiencies are eliminated. Sources told EURACTIV that the Commission had considered linking the removal of the CVM with the two countries’ accession to Schengen, but after a discussion, the idea was abandoned. Bulgaria and Romania have both expressed their ambition to join the borderless Schengen area by 2011. 

Commission spokesperson Johannes Laitenberger explained that the commissioners had decided to treat monitoring and Schengen as separate issues, as no legal factual link exists between them. 

But sources said that opinions within the college diverged over whether linking the admission to Schengen would be seen in Sofia and Bucharest as a ‘carrot’ or a ‘stick’. Amid demands from some countries for the Commission to be tough on the two newcomers (EURACTIV 18/06/09), the EU executive abandoned all references to Schengen.

Bulgaria had feared that the Commission would propose using the safeguard clause in the judicial field, which would de facto invalidate the country’s court decisions in the eyes of jurisdictions in other EU member states. As leaked copies of the report reached Sofia and revealed no such threat, several officials enthusiastically welcomed the report even before it was published. 

The Romanian reaction was more critical. Romanian MEPs blasted the report even before it was published (EURACTIV 17/07/09), and Victor Ponta, minister for relations with the Parliament, called the CVM an “outdated and inadequate bureaucratic instrument”. 

As some countries, including France, had indicated that the CVM needed to be “fine-tuned” (EURACTIV 30/06/09), the Commission now recognises that “further assistance” is needed to support the reform processes in Bulgaria and Romania. The next report is expected in a year’s time, and in the autumn a separate report on EU funding to the two newcomers is foreseen. 

MEP Ivaylo Kalfin (S&D, Bulgaria) told EURACTIV that the report on his country represented undisputable progress, and even said it had established a positive momentum. But he disagreed with the Commission's view that there was no political consensus in Bulgaria on fighting organised crime. He also rejected suggestions that the CVM should stay in the long term. 

Kalfin advised the new government in Sofia and the new Commission to start working on an exit strategy from the CVM that is acceptable to all – Bulgaria, the EU executive and the member states. 

Romanian Chamber of Deputies speaker Roberta Anastase said that the Commission's report on Romania "may be considered a sign of confidence on the part of the EU executive in the Romanian government," Mediafax reported. 

Anastase deplored the fact that the CVM would not be lifted, but welcomed as good news the fact that the safeguard clause had not been triggered. 

The Open Society Institute in Sofia and the European Policies Initiative  yesterday published a comparative report entitled 'The unfinished business of the fifth enlargement countries', in which it is suggested that Bulgaria has been at risk of being stripped of its voting rights in the Council for its poor record in fighting organised crime. The report states: 

"The only potentially effective mechanism over the political domain is the activation of article seven of the Treaty on European Union (suspending member-state voting rights in the Council). This measure was unofficially discussed in Bulgaria due to the country's failure to combat corruption and organised crime; even its mere circulation in inner circles became a punitive measure for the government." 

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 the two countries would be unable to apply Community law correctly and their citizens would not be able to fully enjoy their rights as EU citizens. 

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both member states. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards, included in the accession treaties and invoked against new member states as a last resort. If used, the process could lead the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds. Such an unprecedented decision, if applied, would also badly hurt the countries' reputations. 

In a turnaround compared to previous monitoring reports, where Bulgaria was invariably portrayed as the laggard in meeting EU standards on judicial reform and fighting corruption (EURACTIV 24/07/09), the Brussels executive unveiled reports last February which depicted Romania as the slow performer this time (EURACTIV 13/02/09). 

The annual reports on Bulgaria and Romania are prepared by the Commission's secretariat-general under the authority of President José Manuel Barroso, in agreement with Vice-President Jacques Barrot. Recently the French Senate cautioned against "stigmatising" the EU's most recent members and suggested fine-tuning the CVM (EURACTIV 30/06/09). 

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