Last week I met Ivan Simonovic, justice minister of Croatia, whose bid to join the European Union in 2011 or 2012 depends to a great extent on how well the EU authorities judge the nation’s struggle against organised crime and corruption is going. Simonovic, an energetic reformer of Croatia’s judicial system, told me that Croatia now had “a stronger system of prevention and suppression of organised crime than in many European Union countries”.
He didn’t mention any countries by name, but it may have been no coincidence that on the same day the European Commission published its latest reports on Bulgaria and Romania, easily the two most corruption-ridden EU member-states. The report on Bulgaria struck me as surprisingly mild, permitting Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev to describe it as “a clear, encouraging signal that we are on the right track”. Still, the report’s final sentence pulled no punches: “No major court decisions on high-profile cases of organised crime have been taken in recent months.”
The assessment of Romania was noticeably harsher. “The pace of progress noted in the Commission’s report of July 2008 has not been maintained… Some investigations of high-level cases remain blocked by the Romanian parliament… The capacity of the judicial system in Romania is still weak… It is important that the Romanian authorities regain momentum on judicial reform and the fight against corruption, so as to reverse certain backward movements of recent months.”
The corridors of power in Brussels still echo to the mutterings of policymakers who think Bulgaria and Romania, which became EU members in January 2007, were admitted too soon into the bloc. Once a country joins, so the argument goes, its fellow member-states and the EU institutions lose much of their leverage to make that new entrant behave better. True, but one could perhaps make the case that Bulgaria’s recent improvement - if that’s what it really is - owes something to the European Commission’s decision last year to withdraw or suspend EU funds worth several hundred million euros. Overall, though, it is difficult to disagree with the latest verdict from Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog: “Since 2007, some anti-corruption measures have been launched by both countries, but results are far from satisfactory since these initiatives are limited to the EU’s minimal mandatory requirements and do not address the core corruption problems faced by Bulgaria and Romania.”