Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bulgaria and Romania escape sanctions, but not criticism

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The two newest EU entrants, Bulgaria and Romania, will face open criticism over their poor anti-corruption record on Wednesday (27 June), but the European Commission will stop short of calling for sanctions.

EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini will present two reports - seen by EUobserver - on how Sofia and Bucharest are tackling deep-rooted corruption, reforming their judiciary, using agricultural funds and improving food safety - all areas showing serious shortcomings before the two entered the then 25-nation bloc six months ago.
"Continued attention will need to be paid to all areas," both evaluations state, adding that "in particular, there is no room for complacency in the pursuit of judicial reform and the fight against corruption."

According to the paper, Bulgaria and Romania have shown "clear weakness in translating intentions into results," with Brussels being particularly frustrated by the countries' inability to combat high-level corruption.

"There is little evidence of rigorous and systematic judicial follow-up on allegations," it says.

The latest high-level corruption cases in Romania have been suspended and referred to the constitutional court on speculative arguments made by the defence, while in general, the sentences applied by Romanian courts in such areas - on average one to two years in jail - are considered mild.

The courts in Romania do not seem to understand their role in the effort to curb corruption, according to Brussels.

Bulgaria, in addition, is dragging its feet on the fight against organized crime, namely on legal prosecution of alleged contract killings and confiscation of criminal assets.

Time not ripe for sanctions
The European Commission reports are part of Bulgaria and Romania's accession package, setting out the toughest-ever conditions imposed on a country entering the EU club - something designed to keep the political pressure up, as many EU states questioned their fitness to join.

The accession treaties make it clear that if there are serious shortcomings in the transposition and implementation of the EU standards in the economic, internal market and justice and home affairs areas, so-called safeguard measures can be taken for up to three years after accession.

Penalties may include cuts in EU funding or a red light for participation in a particular policy area, for example, refusal to recognise court decisions made in the two countries throughout the 27-nation bloc.

However, Brussels has chosen not to come down too hard on Sofia and Bucharest this time, indicating it is too early to trigger sanctions. Instead, it will stick to the monitoring scenario for at least another year.

By October, Sofia and Bucharest must both prepare an action plan showing how they intend to catch up and meet the benchmarks. In mid 2008, the commission will table another detailed analysis, reviewing its decision not to pull sanctions out of its pocket.

Frattini intervenes
But the report - to be approved by the 27-member college of commissioners - could still see minor changes, as three members oppose its tone.

EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini, together with Bulgarian commissioner Meglena Kuneva and their Romanian colleague Leonard Orban, say the critical remarks are too strong and should be toned down.

The trio has reportedly met with reluctance from the rest of the commission, reflecting the mood in some EU capitals, questioning the political health of the two countries.

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