When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, other member states expressed serious concern about the high level of corruption in both of the former communist states, and, in Bulgaria, about the political power wielded by violent criminal gangs operating there. Now, some 30 months after joining the union, widespread fraud, corruption, and organized crime remain problematic according to new European Union reports that openly question the will of political leaders to implement reforms to tackle these problems.
The latest progress reports on the justice system and fight against corruption, released on 22 July, come as a serious if not unexpected blow to Bulgaria and Romania - which suffer from the public perception they were accepted into the EU club too early - but also to EU candidate countries where accession talks have stalled, such as Croatia and perennial hopeful Turkey.
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While noting Bulgaria's and Romania's progress in key areas, the European Commission, as in previous reports since 2007, listed an array of ills, among them inadequate measures to fight money-laundering and killings linked to organized crime. In total, the reports named 21 areas in which Bulgaria needs to improve its performance, and 16 for Romania, including the implementation of anti-corruption laws and boosting the judicial independence.
"The reform momentum that has been established now needs to be backed up by a national political consensus involving all political parties and institutions, and more convincing delivery of results," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement. "Citizens in both countries and across the rest of Europe must feel that no one is above the law. I hope that the two governments will move quickly to implement the concrete recommendations for reform that the Commission has put forward."
The commission last year froze around 500 million euros in subsidies earmarked to help the Bulgarian economy and threatened to sanction Romania as well over exactly the same kinds of failings outlined in this week's reports.
This time the commission decided not to advise other member states to stop cooperation with Bulgaria and Romania on judicial issues, an option known as the "safeguard clause" in the two countries' accession agreements. Brussels also stopped short of saying that the shortcomings could imperil the countries' attempts to join the border-free Schengen area in 2011.
But the commission will extend into 2010 the monitoring system, known as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, with the next progress report due in a year's time. That extension is a political embarrassment for Sofia and Bucharest - and a wake-up call for Croatia to also get its house in order. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted that Zagreb is also lagging in "key areas such as judicial and administrative reform, the fight against corruption, and organized crime."
BIG JOB FOR NEW BULGARIAN LEADER
Whether this will instill a need to fast-track reforms remains to be seen. Indeed, the commission - which has already barred two Bulgarian government agencies from handling EU funds - said in its latest report that while Sofia no longer is denying that organized crime and corruption are widespread, the political will to do something about it is not yet evident.
"In the public perception in Bulgaria justice is too slow" and is "subject to influence and interference," Johannes Leitenberger, chief spokesperson for the commission, told reporters in Brussels, as cited by EUobserver.com. "There are still shortcomings which need to be urgently addressed by the newly elected Bulgarian government."
The commission released the latest judicial and crime monitoring reports days before the scheduled swearing-in of Bulgaria's incoming prime minister, Boyko Borisov, the Sofia mayor and a former Interior Ministry official who won elections this month on an anti-corruption platform. His party GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) also pledged to go after former government officials suspected of graft and has promised to implement the commission's demands.
If Borisov talks tough, he may well have the background and political muscle to back up his words. The private security company he founded helped protect Bulgaria's deposed last communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, and on the other side of the political spectrum, Simeon Saxecoburggotski, the deposed monarch who returned from exile and served as premier from 2001 until 2005.
MILD PRAISE FOR BUCHAREST
Romania - criticized for its fragmented and politicized approach to reform - did earn praise for the work of its anti-corruption directorate. Organized crime is also seen as far less of a problem than in Bulgaria. According to the commission, the country's criminal and civil codes, while updated, have not been fully or systematically revised, leading to a "patchwork" of ad hoc legislation that risks compromising anti-corruption efforts.
In Romania, "reform efforts remain fragmented, they have not yet taken firmly root and must still produce practical results," the commission stated. "Overall, a broad based political consensus behind reform and an unequivocal commitment across political parties to real progress has still to be demonstrated." And while prosecutors in Romania have accused almost 20 cabinet ministers and former ministers of corruption since the country's accession to the bloc in 2007, not one has been convicted.
Opinion polls show EU citizens have grown more wary of bringing new countries into the bloc since the "early admission" of Bulgaria and Romania - and the perception of lawlessness in the region is a factor. But without the "carrot" of that qualified (i.e. monitored) membership and the "stick" of sanctions, the wheels of judicial reform in these countries would have turned far slower. The message to EU candidates Croatia, Turkey, and Macedonia and those waiting in the wings (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Albania) is to raise the bar - accelerate reforms - ahead of entry or formal accession talks.
Likewise, if Brussels should renege on the promise of future membership to the Balkans it could destabilize an already volatile region, right on the EU border. In that regard, Enlargement Commissioner Rehn was right this month to propose offering visa-free travel for citizens of Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro from 1 January 2010, in an effort to bring these countries closer to the bloc even as Brussels pushes for faster political, judicial, and economic progress.