Bulgaria and Romania were warned today that they have failed to do enough to tackle high-level corruption and contract killings, but that they would be spared sanctions for the time being.
In a six-monthly progress report, the European Commission told the two new EU member states that there was no room for complacency, despite some progress in remedying weaknesses on justice and home affairs.
Franco Frattini, the EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner, said that to meet EU rules in the field the two countries needed to step up their battle against corruption, and work to overcome the backlog of cases waiting to go to court.
"High-level corruption is still one point of weakness, both governments are aware of this," Mr Frattini told reporters, after the Commission voted to adopt reports on the two EU members.
"Too few results are shown concerning practical results ... too many indictments still need to be translated into a final decision of a court, that’s why we say very frankly progress made in this field is still insufficient," added Mr Frattini.
Concern over corruption and organized crime has led the EU to insist on a long period of monitoring the progress of the two countries, which joined the EU in January. Both countries must report to the EU every six months on progress in reforms to curb corruption and streamline their judiciaries, or risk losing a chunk of economic aid.
In today's report - the first - the Commission said it was too early either to decide on possible sanctions or to remove that threat for the two states.
It had threatened to invoke so-called safeguard clauses under their membership treaties, which would have suspended the two Black Sea neighbours from participation in EU justice and interior policies until they met EU standards and norms in the area.
Mr Frattini warned them that the threat of such a sanction would be extended until June 2008, when another report card is to be issued on their reforms.
The threat is meant to put extra pressure on the two countries to redouble efforts to overhaul their judicial systems.
Romania was credited with progress in judicial reform and substantial progress in creating a National Integrity Agency.
Recently Romania has started to take action against corruption among political leaders. In May, the former Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was charged over allegations he used his office to end a probe into his bank accounts over claims he accepted just over a million euros in bribes.
But in both countries “progress in the judicial treatment of high-level corruption is insufficient”, the reports said.
In Bulgaria, an unfolding corruption scandal has implicated the economy minister and the government’s chief investigator.
Bulgaria was criticised in the report for failing to achieve enough across the whole area of crime-fighting. Between 2001 and 2006, more than 150 people were gunned down in broad daylight in the capital, Sofia, including Bulgaria’s top banker, a football company boss and one of its top importers. No-one has been jailed.
“Contract killings continue to be of great concern, and in particular most recent killings of local politicians since January," said the report. "To date no prosecution and conviction has taken place.”
The Commission said that Bulgaria had met one key benchmark by passing a constitutional amendment establishing the independence and accountability of the judiciary.
It had also made some progress towards transparency in its judicial process, improving the professionalism and efficiency of judges. However, the overall picture was unsatisfactory.
The EU executive is also due to report separately later this year on the two states' ability to administer and absorb regional aid and agricultural subsidies, which may lead to a partial withholding of some money from Brussels, EU officials say.