Wednesday, June 27, 2007

FT: Bulgaria and Romania warned on corruption

By George Parker in Brussels, Christopher Condon in Budapest and Theodor Troev in Sofia

Published: June 27 2007 14:24

Bulgaria and Romania were on Wednesday warned by Brussels to step up their fight against corruption, but a critical report was watered down in an attempt to shore up reformers in the two countries.

The European Commission on Wednesday reported that the two new EU members have failed to crackdown on serious corruption. In the case of Bulgaria there was “insufficient” progress of tackling organised crime.

But Brussels backed away from the use of sanctions against the Balkan countries, and gave the two countries another year to meet the basic membership rules of the Union. In the meantime hundreds of millions of euros of EU farm and regional aid will flow into the region.

The language in the Commission’s draft report was toned down this week after a rearguard action by Franco Frattini, EU justice commissioner and the Bulgarian and Romanian commissioners - Meglena Kuneva and Leonard Orban respectively.

They argued that a highly critical assessment would undermine reformers in the two countries, who are faced with unstable coalitions and deeply ingrained graft at the highest political level.

One Commission official admitted it would also be hard to explain why Brussels had not implemented sanctions - notably the non-recognition of court rulings in the two countries - if it produced a scathing report.

Mr Frattini was despatched to explain the diluted report to the media, insisting it was “credible and balanced”, telling the truth about the lack of progress in fighting serious crime but giving praise where appropriate.

“Our responsibility is to have a political discussion,” he said. “We have to evaluate the factual results and strike the right balance.”

He said sanctions would only be applied “in exceptional cases” but said he expected both countries to have seen through necessary reforms by the summer of 2008.

But his generally upbeat assessment surprised some observers, notably his assertion that “a lot of concrete results have been delivered” including the bringing of suspects on high level corruption charges before the court.

When challenged by a Bulgarian journalist whether he could name any such case in her country, Mr Frattini was unable to answer.

Mr Frattini was accused in April by ambassadors from Britain, France and Sweden of being too close to the governments of Romania and Bulgaria, including spending the weekend on the ski slopes with the Bulgarian interior minister.

The Italian commissioner strongly denies the allegations and says the ski trip was a working visit.

Supporters of future EU enlargement fear the slow reforms in Bulgaria and Romania could harm the club’s expansion deeper into the Balkans.

Meanwhile EU cash intended to boost Bulgarian and Romanian development could end up in the pockets of bent politicians and criminals, as happened in southern Italy.

Additional reporting by Hugh Williamson in Berlin

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