Britain and France have joined forces to demand that Brussels gets tough on Bulgaria and Romania over “serious” corruption, amid claims that the European Union’s two newest members are being let off the hook.
Sweden and the Netherlands also voiced fears that the European Commission is not taking seriously its promise to maintain pressure on the two states to complete promised legal reforms, undermining the credibility of the EU’s enlargement process.
The formal complaint, made at a private meeting this month, saw member states allege that Franco Frattini, the EU justice commissioner, had grown too close to the two countries he is monitoring. Mr Frattini’s decision to go skiing in February with Rumen Petkov, Bulgaria’s interior minister, caused consternation in some national capitals and among some colleagues in Brussels.
The Italian commissioner’s spokesman said the skiing took place during a working weekend in the Bulgarian mountains and he refuted “in the strongest possible terms” any suggestions of a conflict of interest.
However, EU ambassadors claimed Mr Frattini’s public assessments of progress in Bulgaria in particular did not reflect what one diplomat called a “very, very serious” situation.
“The credibility of the enlargement process is at stake because if we can’t handle this properly the conclusion will be that we cannot take in countries like this in future,” the diplomat said.
Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on January 1, but were told to step up work urgently to meet the bloc’s standards in the justice field, including fighting high-level corruption and organised crime. The Commission set up a monitoring regime, with the threat of penalties if good progress had not been made, including non-recognition of court judgments in the two countries and potential suspension of EU subsidies.
Several EU member states claim Commission officials have been told privately to not be too critical of the two countries, even though Bulgaria has a non-existent record for convictions for high-level corruption. The ambassadors of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Sweden demanded a meeting with Catherine Day, the Commission’s top civil servant, to insist her office got a grip on the situation and ensure that a progress report in June was rigorous.
The Commission said Ms Day’s secretariat-general was overseeing the work and that expert missions had been undertaken recently in Bulgaria and Romania.
France and the Netherlands are sceptical about enlargement, but Britain and Sweden want to ensure the Bulgarian experience does not tarnish efforts to further extend EU borders.
Mr Frattini’s spokesman said it was normal for Ms Day’s team to co-ordinate the work. The commissioner had been “consistent and coherent”, welcoming re-forms where they were carried out, encouraging the countries to improve for their own sake and insisting reforms yielded concrete results, he said.