Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bulgaria and Romania face EU rebuke

International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

BRUSSELS: Bulgaria and Romania will receive a stern rebuke Wednesday from the European Commission for failing to root out corruption and organized crime, fueling concerns that the two nations were admitted prematurely to the European Union.

Though neither nation will face special sanctions that the EU could impose, officials will make it clear that both countries need to intensify efforts to rein in bribery, criminal networks and contract killings.

The harsh verdict comes as the EU is experiencing expansion fatigue following the bloc's enlargement in from 15 countries to 27 since 2004.

The inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania in January extended the EU's borders to the Black Sea and was seen as a means to promote stability in an often volatile region. But it also challenged an already overstretched bureaucracy.

Moreover, it gave the world's biggest trading bloc two countries where per capita income is less than €4,000, or $5,270, a year, spurring concerns that the poor, southeast European countries would be a drain on EU finances.

At a meeting Wednesday, European commissioners will argue over the exact wording of a formal assessment. But a draft of the document on Bulgaria concluded that, while the country has stepped up efforts in the fight against corruption and organized crime, "much remains to be done."

Government statistics "mix up domestic murders with those linked to general criminality and/or linked to organized crime, particularly contract killings."

The draft adds: " 'Contract killings' continue to be of great concern and in particular most recent killings of local politicians since January. To date no prosecution and conviction has taken place."

Laws still protect those who amass unexplained wealth but who cannot be investigated without a link to a criminal offense, and "progress in the fight against serious and organized crime is still insufficient," according to the draft.

Similarly the document concludes that "overall, progress achieved in the judicial treatment of high-level corruption cases in Bulgaria is still insufficient."

The effectiveness of penal and judicial reforms remains unclear and confusion persists about who is ultimately responsible for the drive against corruption, "the prime minister, the minister of interior, the prosecutor general, the chairman of some interagency body or somebody else."

Another failing spotlights weaknesses in aviation security. Bulgaria has already been told that its airline safety certificates will not be accepted by the rest of the EU.

In February, Sofia withdrew airworthiness certificates for more than 160 aircraft.

A separate document on Romania will express concerns about political instability there following an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to impeach the president, Traian Basescu.

Though less severe than the assessment on Bulgaria, the document on Romania highlights a series of concerns. There is, says the draft, "a need to step up efforts in the pursuit of judicial reform and the fight against corruption."

But of most concern to EU officials is the question of whether structures are in place to combat the lingering corruption and lawlessness that surfaced during the transition from communism.

As a result, the EU imposed some of the toughest conditions ever on the poor southeast European entrants, including granting the Commission the power to suspend aid programs if the two countries backtrack on vital reforms. Romania expects to receive as much as €1.7 billion in the first year after entry, while Bulgaria, with a smaller population, would be entitled to 661 million.

So concerned was the European Commission that it had threatened to postpone the two nations' entry to the bloc until January 2008 but it decided against such a sanction because it thought it might prove demotivating for reformers in the country.

Romania and Bulgaria had more endemic corruption than the eight newest EU members from the east did before joining, according to Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog whose reports are widely read within the commission. In progress reports leading up to their admission on Jan. 1, the Commission expressed fears about the countries' sluggish pace of judicial reform, a worrying backlog of cases in their court systems, and a persistent problem with organized crime and human trafficking.

In the six months since Bulgaria and Romania joined , European diplomats have complained that neither country has made sufficient progress. In Romania, the judiciary has failed to completely root out corruption, in part because judges and government bureaucrats have among the lowest salaries in Europe - a problem the government is seeking to rectify. In Bulgaria, where salaries are similarly low, the judicial system is considered chronically ineffective, with many criminals not brought to justice. Meantime, dozens of organized crime figures have been publicly assassinated in the last several years, without any arrests.

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