Europe is back, the world’s business and political elites heard in Davos this week. But, as Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa rightly cautioned, there is no room for complacency.
Indeed, the elephant in the room is plain to see even though few EU officials have publicly said as much: since the big bang of enlargement in 2004, most new ex-communist members have done nothing to strengthen their democracy and rule of law.
Quite the contrary: while the prospect of EU membership provided enough of a carrot to make candidates implement reforms, fight corruption and keep nationalism and xenophobia at bay, the standards have since slipped and the sticks at hand are weak.
The growing east-west gap – particularly visible on migration, but also on basic democratic principles – only reinforces the image of a two-speed Europe.
Poland and Hungary, the ‘rogue’ states that have openly defied Brussels and got away with it – for now – are only the most visible examples.
A new report commissioned by the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament shows that anti-corruption efforts in Bulgaria – the country that currently holds the EU presidency – leave a lot to be desired.
Bulgaria is the worst-performing country in the European Union in the fight against corruption, according to the ranking of Transparency International, and ranks 109th globally in the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders. In 2006, before joining the EU, it ranked 36th.
“Despite some progress, corruption remains a major concern in Bulgaria and needs to be tackled urgently,” said MEP Sven Giegold, who was rapporteur for the European Parliament’s report on transparency, accountability and integrity in the EU institutions.
Earlier this week, the Commission – Juncker and Timmermans, no less – issued a stark warning to Romania over concerns about the judiciary and corruption in the country as it prepares to take over the EU presidency next January.
“We are following the latest developments in Romania with concern,” the two said in a statement.
A package of legislative changes that opponents say will curb the powers of Romanian anti-corruption investigators has triggered mass protests. The most recent was on Saturday, when 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Bucharest.
“The Commission calls on the Romanian parliament to rethink the course of action proposed… The Commission again warns against backtracking,” said Juncker and Timmermans.
Add to that continuing government instability – with the third prime minister in a year installed this month – and it is clear that Romania, just like Bulgaria, will be kept outside the Schengen area for some time.
The eurozone also remains a distant prospect for both, though Bulgaria said earlier in January it would apply this year to be allowed into the ERM-2, the euro waiting room, in which every candidate spends at least two years.
Enter Croatia, the latest EU member, which only joined in 2013. Its economy reversed almost a decade of decline in 2015 and has been growing ever since, but its democratic credentials have taken a turn for the worse.
Governed by a coalition led by the conservative HDZ party since early 2016, the country has seen something of a return to the nationalist rhetoric of the 1990s (the period of its struggle for independence from Yugoslavia), a revival of its Nazi-era history in the public domain and gradual cuts in funding for independent media and NGOs.
That’s why it was visited twice in as many years by a team of media freedom experts, who said upon returning to Brussels last week that there have been some improvements, but serious concerns remain.
The EU has rightly identified the need for unity as a priority. But how will it strengthen the ‘shared set of core values’ that simply isn’t there?
This edition of Trans-Europe Express is co-financed by the European Parliament.
The Inside Track
Stop the presses. Croatia has fallen to 74th place in the World Press Freedom Index, just below Mongolia, Malawi and Hungary. Reporters Without Borders warned urgent action is needed to stop the rot.
Europe here we come? Support for EU membership is growing in Serbia, with a recent poll finding that just over half of people would now vote to join the bloc. Jobs and free movement are the biggest draws.
Cough up the cash. The mayor of the Turkish city of Gaziantep told EURACTIV the EU “doesn’t understand Turkey” and has not paid enough for its part in the refugee deal.
Must try harder. Bulgaria’s environment minister was given a rough ride by MEPs over his denial of climate change and his decision to approve a new ski lift in a protected national park.
Violence against women. Bulgaria’s United Patriots are refusing to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women and domestic violence for fear of legitimising the “third sex”.
Euronews in the doghouse. Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU sent an outraged letter to the Commission about a “positive” feature the news network aired on the occupying Russian army in Crimea.
Nationalism’s no longer a taboo. The FPÖ may be in government for the first time in Austria, but the far-right party has always been influential behind the scenes.
Corruption backsliding. Protesters hit the streets of Romania again this week over the government’s latest attempt to bury the fight against corruption. The EU is “Concerned”.
Deeply rooted scepticism. A change of leadership in the Czech Republic will not make the county’s people less Eurosceptic, political analyst Lubomir Kopecek told EURACTIV Slovakia.
Views are the author’s