Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bulgaria and Romania under fire over crime

The Financial Times

By Tony Barber in Brussels

Published: February 5 2008

Bulgaria and Romania, the European Union's newest members, were yesterday rebuked for failing to crack down sufficiently on high-level corruption and organised crime.

The European Commission, in an interim report on the countries' efforts to meet EU standards on justice and the rule of law, stopped short of threatening immediate punishments but made clear its concern that progress was too slow.

"To use a sports analogy, we had a poor first half, we expect a better second one, and we don't want to go into extra time or penalties," Mark Gray, a Commission spokesman, told reporters.

As a condition of their entry to the EU in January 2007, Bulgaria and Romania had to accept a monitoring system under which the Commission supervised their efforts to stamp out organised crime and corruption, particularly in the public sector and judicial system. If Bulgaria and Romania fail to make enough progress, the EU has the right to impose punitive measures, such as withholding funds for agriculture and underdeveloped regions, at any point up to December 2009.

The Commission's report said: "In its first year of membership, Romania has continued to make efforts to remedy weaknesses that would otherwise prevent an effective application of EU laws, policies and programmes. However, in key areas such as the fight against high-level corruption, convincing results have not yet been demonstrated."

The report uses identical language for Bulgaria but also makes the point that the fight against organised crime there appears to be proceeding slowly. From July 1 to December 31 2007, Bulgaria launched 48 investigations for organised crime-related offences. Twenty-one indictments were forwarded to courts and 24 convictions were recorded, according to the report.

"The Commission's analysis of a sample of high-profile cases [of organised crime] registered shows that only one case has been finalised since 2000 and half of the cases are still at the investigation stage."

Local government, the healthcare sector and education were highlighted in the Commission's report as areas where corruption was widespread in Bulgaria.

Romania, meanwhile, was faulted for allowing delays in the setting up of an anti-corruption authority.

The efforts of Bulgaria and Romania have wider implications for the EU, because similar problems of corruption and lawlessness plague most, if not all, other Balkan countries that are keen to join the bloc.

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