Commission lauds Bulgaria, castigates Romania on judicial reform

Frans Timmermans [Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock]

The European Commission published on Tuesday (13 November) reports on Bulgaria and Romania under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), commending Bulgaria for progress made and lambasting Romania for backtracking. Both countries, however, were warned to uphold media freedom.

CVM was set up as a condition of the countries’ EU accession almost eleven years ago, on 1 January 2007.

Romania and Bulgaria were not ready for accession, EU auditors confess

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) lifted the veil on a little-known page of European history yesterday (12 September) when it revealed the Court had initially opposed the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU.

The mechanism was set up as means to overcome deficiencies in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption, and in the case of Bulgaria in the fight against organised crime. The initial idea was that these deficiencies could be overcome in a couple of years.

However, the CVM monitoring remained in place during Bulgaria’s presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018, and without any doubt will be in place for Romania’s presidency in the first half of 2019.

A unique experience

CVM is a unique experience the Commission doesn’t wish to repeat. In 2013, Croatia joined without such a mechanism, and EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans begin accession talks with what is considered the most difficult chapters, related to the rule of law and human rights.

The last report was met with complete indifference in Bulgaria, where Prime Minister Boyko Borissov keeps repeating that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had promised to lift the monitoring before the end of his term (1 November 2019). What Juncker actually said was that he hoped monitoring could be lifted if results are achieved.

Bulgaria's EU justice monitoring report goes unnoticed

The European Commission’s monitoring report on Bulgaria’s progress in improving its law-enforcement system went largely unnoticed, as its publication yesterday (25 January) coincided with the appointment of a caretaker government in Sofia, pending snap parliamentary elections on 26 March.

In contrast, last year’s report on Romania was rather positive. Bucharest even said that monitoring should be lifted but the Commission rejected the suggestion.

Commission rejects Romania's bid to lift EU justice monitoring

Romania’s justice minister claimed yesterday (12 January) that Bucharest had filled the requirements for the European Commission to lift its monitoring over the country’s judicial system this year. But Brussels has refuted the suggestion. EURACTIV Romania reports.

Since then, Romania has backtracked so much that the country is now widely seen as the next in line after Poland and Hungary in a procedure that may lead to the triggering of Article 7, under which a country’s voting rights in the European Council are suspended if it flouts the EU’s fundamental rights.

The report on Bulgaria says that the Commission positively notes Bulgaria’s continued efforts and determination to implement those recommendations.

Speaking to the press, Commission Vice-President Frans TImmermans said that if the current positive trend continues and progress is maintained sustainably and irreversibly, the CVM process for Bulgaria can be concluded before the end of this Commission’s mandate.

He said that three out of the six benchmarks set up for Bulgaria (Romania has four benchmarks) could be considered as provisionally closed.

In contrast, with regard to Romania, Timmermans said the developments of the last 12 months had “sadly” put into question and even reversed the progress made over the last ten years. [See report on Romania]

He added this was specifically the case with regard to the amended justice laws, the pressure on the judiciary in general, and particularly the pressure on the national anti-corruption directorate (DNA).

‘Immediate follow-up’

Timmermans formulated eight additional recommendations “for immediate follow-up”, to put the process back on track in the case of Romania. Those are:

– Suspend immediately the implementation of the Justice laws and subsequent Emergency Ordinances;

– Revise the Justice laws taking fully into account the recommendations under the CVM and issued by the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe;

– Suspend immediately all ongoing appointments and dismissal procedures for senior prosecutors,

– Relaunch a process to appoint a chief prosecutor of the DNA with proven experience in the prosecution of corruption crimes and with a clear mandate for the DNA to continue to conduct professional, independent and non-partisan investigations of corruption;

– The Superior Council of Magistracy is to appoint immediately an interim team for the management of the Judicial Inspection and within three months to appoint through a competition a new management team in the Inspection.

– Respect negative opinions from the Superior Council on appointments or dismissals of prosecutors at managerial posts, until a new legislative framework is in place in accordance with recommendation 1 from January 2017.

– Freeze the entry into force of the changes to the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code.

– Reopen the revision of the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, taking fully into account the need for compatibility with EU law and international anti-corruption instruments, as well as the recommendations under the CVM and the Venice Commission opinion.

Free media

Timmermans said the reports also take note of a broader fact – the freedom of media – which is outside the scope of the CVM but has an impact on the advance of judicial reform and the fight against corruption.

“This is not only important to effectively pursue the necessary reforms covered by the CVM, it is also the bedrock of any well-governed democracy. We need the media to be able to work free from pressure. This is essential in any European democracy”, he said.

The Commission Vice President added that the Commission would return to this subject before the end of this term, adding that it was not doing this to punish Bulgaria and Romania but to help them.

Indeed, the media situation in Bulgaria and Romania has deteriorated since they joined the EU. Bulgaria in particular continues to collapse in the Reporters Without Borders media freedom index and occupies the 111th position in the 2018 ranking, from a total of 179 countries monitored.

This means Bulgaria has lost two positions compared to 2017, but more importantly, Bulgaria is now last not only in the EU but also among the Western Balkan countries. The same index ranks Romania 44th.

In Romania, the authorities misuse EU legislation to require journalists to reveal their sources. RISE Project, an award-winning investigative journalism outlet in Romania, was ordered Thursday by the Romanian Data Protection Authority to reveal its sources under the threat of a fine of up to €20 million based on the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) directive. [More]

Bulgaria is last on media freedom in EU and in the Balkans

Bulgaria, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, ranks last among all EU countries in terms of media freedom. It is also the worst in the Western Balkans, a region Sofia hopes to bring closer to the EU.

Adding insult to injury

To add insult to injury, the European Parliament chose the same day the CVM reports were published to pass a resolution slamming Romania, including for the alleged interference of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) in the activities of the judiciary. The text was passed with 473 votes in favour, 151 opposed and 40 abstentions.

The resolution wraps up the debate held in a previous plenary on 3 October with Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă.

Heated debate in Strasbourg on the rule of law under threat in Romania

Agitation took hold of the European chamber concerning the reform of the Romanian judicial system, which aims to lighten corruption proceedings. EURACTIV France reports.

 

Bonus to Sofia

Bulgaria has hardly made progress in improving its record, but faced with Romania’s backtracking, the Commission has given a bonus to Sofia, be it only to make the case that CVM is not a failure.

In recent weeks, the Bulgarian prosecution has been unusually active in indicting prominent businessmen and politicians. However, the experience so far has been that in similar cases the investigations did not produce court sentences.

Unlike Romania, where a special anti-corruption body, DNA has succeeded to put in jail the equivalent of a full-size government, complete with a prime minister, ministers and high-ranking officials, no Bulgarian politician has been put behind bars for corruption.

But Romania’s socialist-led government has accused DNA of bias and wrongdoing, sacked its head, Laura Codruța Kövesi, and is now seeking to oust the prosecutor general Augustin Lazar.

Romanian government asks president to sack public prosecutor

The Romanian Justice Minister on Wednesday (24 October) formally asked the president to sack public prosecutor Augustin Lazar, a strong critic of the left-wing ruling party’s judicial reforms, just months after the country’s top anti-graft prosecutor was also dismissed.

An Anti-corruption Commission was set up in Bulgaria last March, with new powers to investigate, decried by the opposition as reminiscent of the communist secret services. The biggest “catch” of this Commission has been the mayor of a Sofia district; however, the court case against her reportedly faces an uphill battle.

The second biggest affair the Anti-corruption Commission is investigating concerns a scam run by state officials which has enabled thousands of foreigners to obtain Bulgarian passports for cash. But observers doubt it will produce major results in the end.

Thousands obtained EU citizenship for €5000 in Bulgarian scam

Bulgarian prosecutors said Monday (29 October) they have broken up a scam run by state officials which had enabled thousands of foreigners to obtain Bulgarian passports for cash — and with them visa-free travel across the EU.

 

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