The European Commission warned EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania Wednesday to take more action to fight corruption but stopped short of imposing sanctions for their failure to meet reform targets.
The European Union's executive arm said in two reports that the Balkan states, which joined the bloc on January 1, had made progress with judicial reform but needed to do more to implement the changes.
"These efforts need to be consolidated, particularly in the area of the fight against corruption," said EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini.
But the commission decided against triggering the so-called "safeguard clauses" that had been put in place for the first three years of the two countries' membership because of their poor degree of readiness.
"The commission has not proposed at this stage the use of safeguard clauses as sufficient progress has been made to suggest that in time the benchmarks can be met by the Bulgarian and Romanian governments," it said in a statement.
EU countries and the commission can sanction either country for failures in their judicial systems or in the management of EU funds and food safety.
They can refuse to recognise legal decisions and can even suspend farm aid to Bulgaria and Romania.
The two countries immediately conceded that there were shortcomings and vowed to continue with, and implement, the necessary reforms.
"We share the opinions presented in the report as to the fact that there are still problems left to solve," Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu said, adding that his country would "continue eliminating the weak points".
The report on Romania said it should ensure a more transparent and efficient judicial process; establish an agency to check conflicts of interest; and take more effective action against high-level corruption.
Bulgaria was urged to adopt constitutional amendments on the independence of its justice system; continue with reforms of the judiciary; and investigate high-level local government and border corruption.
It was also told to implement a strategy to fight organised crime.
"Bulgaria received recognition that it has taken a stride forward" towards meeting reform targets, Bulgaria's Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova told journalists in Sofia.
"But no particular bravery is needed to admit that we continue to have problems that we must tackle. It is a question of courage and political determination to do that as soon as possible."
Both states were requested to draw up action plans to tackle the issues.
While the two were given the benefit of the doubt because of their short time as EU members, Frattini warned that he expected to see results by the time a new full report is published in June next year.
"I would expect from now till summer 2008 (to see) Bulgaria and Romania meeting the benchmarks," he told journalists in Brussels.
A particularly worrying sign, he said, was the amount of time it took for high-level corruption cases to work through the system.
"After a suspect is brought before a court, it takes a very long time, excessive time to get the final decision," he said. "An average of three or four years, that is too much time."
But safeguard clauses should only be implemented as a last resort, he said.
"Safeguard clauses are triggered in cases of no progress made at all," he said. "Safeguard clauses should be seen as an exceptional clause. It's not normal to trigger a safeguard clause on a full member state."
The commission is due to make visits later this year to the two countries to study their progress on the use of agricultural funds and on animal health and food safety, as well as aviation safety in the case of Bulgaria.
EU officials acknowledged privately that the reports had been toned down from earlier drafts.