Commission’s coaching of Bulgaria and Romania loses steam

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Amid an atmosphere of 'déjà vu', the European Commission yesterday (23 March) criticised Bulgaria and Romania for deficiencies primarily related to their judiciaries. This was the sixth, but not last, set of reports published by the EU executive aimed at encouraging both countries' administrations to strengthen their deficient law-enforcement systems.

On similar occasions in the past the press room had been packed with journalists, but very few reporters were present this time as a Commission spokesperson presented the report.

One possible explanation for the low interest in this year's monitoring reports may relate to the fact that the EU can no longer employ a "safeguard clause" against the bloc's two latest newcomers. Since 1 January 2010, three years after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, it has been unable to trigger the clause.

"The Commission can bark, but it cannot bite," one Western journalist told his colleagues from Sofia and Bucharest.

Bulgaria: Still no high-level convictions

Despite highly-publicised efforts to curb organised crime (EURACTIV 12/02/10), the Commission says the Bulgarian judiciary has continued to produce very limited results in high-level corruption cases. Meanwhile a high-profile street murder occurred in January 2010 (EURACTIV 08/01/10).

"A quicker and more complete administrative follow-up to the Commission's concerns regarding irregularities, conflict of interest and fraud in the implementation of EU funds needs to be implemented before the next assessment," the report states.

The Commission spokesperson said that a substantial amount of frozen EU funding for Bulgaria had been unblocked, but Sofia was still at risk of losing EU monies to address environmental problems as a result of problems with public procurement.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov recently claimed that his country could lose up to 20% of much-needed EU financing due to environmental shortcomings, blaming his political opponents for the problems (EURACTIV 26/01/10).

Romania: Electoral period led to slowdown

The Commission deplored the fact that during the last six months, Romania has been unable to keep up the momentum of reform it had established by mid-2009. Difficulty putting in place a new government (EURACTIV 14/10/09) and the recent presidential elections (EURACTIV 07/12/10) appear to have delayed reforms, the EU executive reports.

"The recent electoral period led to a delay of parliamentary discussion of the draft civil and criminal procedure codes, whose adoption will be a vital next step in the reform process," the document states, pointing out that the capacity of the judicial system has been put under further strain by personnel cuts and protests.

Asked what the added value of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was given that Bulgaria and Romania appear to have made only modest progress over the years, the Commission spokesperson insisted that the CVM had allowed Brussels to maintain an "open discussion" with Sofia and Bucharest. The CVM's track record is significant but more work lies ahead, he said.

Asked how much longer the CVM would be maintained, he said the Commission could not give a time-frame as everything depended on the two governments.

Lessons learned for future enlargements

Asked by EURACTIV whether the lessons learned from Bulgaria and Romania augured similar monitoring mechanisms for Croatia – the next country in line for EU accession – and other Western Balkan countries plagued by corruption and deficient law-enforcement, the Commission representative said each case should be considered on its own merits.

"Whether a decision is taken for other countries, frankly, we would have to assess that at the time of the accession. Our clear desire is that the necessary reforms – and [Enlargement] Commissioner [Štefan] Füle is working hard on this – are actually undertaken before the accession," he said.

"I am not going to pre-empt what the situation would be at the time of the accession of Croatia," he added.

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. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards. If used, the process could lead the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds. Also, if applied, such an unprecedented decision could badly hurt the countries' reputations. 

A Dutch minister asked the Commission to consider activating safeguard clauses against Romania and Bulgaria last summer (EURACTIV 18/06/09), but other countries, such as France, cautioned against "stigmatising" the EU's most recent members (EURACTIV 30/06/09).

  • By summer: Commission expected to publish more in-depth reports on Bulgaria and Romania.

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