Thursday, June 18, 2009

Netherlands gets tough on Bulgaria, Romania

www.euractiv.com

Published: Thursday 18 June 2009

A Dutch minister has asked the European Commission to consider activating safeguard clauses against Romania and Bulgaria should monitoring reports due this summer fail to acknowledge progress in fighting corruption. EurActiv Romania and Dnevnik, EurActiv's partner in Bulgaria, bring this report.

Background:

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption - and in the case of Bulgaria, the fight against organised crime. These shortcomings carried the risk that Bulgaria and Romania would not be able to correctly apply Community law and Bulgarians would not be able to fully enjoy their rights as EU citizens.

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism was set up to assist both countries. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards. Such safeguards are included in both countries' accession treaties and can be invoked against new member states as a last resort. If used, the process could lead the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds. Also, if applied, such an unprecedented decision could badly hurt the countries' reputations.

In a turnaround compared to previous monitoring reports, where Bulgaria was invariably portrayed as the laggard in meeting EU standards on judicial reform and fighting corruption (EurActiv 24/07/09), the Commission unveiled new reports last February which depicted Romania as the slow learner this time (EurActiv 13/02/09).

The next annual reports on Bulgaria and Romania are expected in the summer, but no release date has been communicated so far. The reports are prepared by the EU executive's secretariat-general under the authority of Commission President José Manuel Barroso, in agreement with Vice-President Jacques Barrot.

In a letter to Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot, Dutch EU Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans asks the EU executive to consider activating the safeguard clause in the judicial field should the upcoming monitoring report fail to register "enough progress" on judicial reform, according to Sofia and Bucharest media.

If activated, the clause would de facto invalidate court decisions in Romania and Bulgaria in the eyes of jurisdictions in other EU member countries.

The Dutch had until now considered sanctions to be counter-productive, but as the consequences could be "tremendous", the situation had to be treated "seriously", he said. The EU's credibility was at stake if Brussels was too lax with the newcomers, he warned.

These monitoring reports, which according to sources could be postponed until September, are prepared more thoroughly than the previous two Commission papers, the Romanian press writes. Several Commission delegations have visited Bulgaria and Romania for fact-finding, it adds.

Speaking to EurActiv, Bulgaria's Permanent Representative to the EU Boyko Kotsev confirmed the general content of the letter as described by the press. But he added that his country was hoping for positive monitoring reports, meaning that there would be "no need" for any safeguards.

"Bulgaria has achieved a lot, though there is still a lot of work to be done," Kotsev admitted.

He declined to comment as to whether his country was hoping that the Commission would be less inquisitive in the period preceding the second Lisbon Treaty referendum in Ireland.

The Dutch minister is part of the Labour Party, affiliated to the European Socialist Party. Both the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Romanian Social Democratic (PSD) are key players in the two countries' governing coalitions.

This is not the first time that Timmermans has warned Bulgaria and Bulgaria to step up the fight against corruption, but his letter to the Commission has set a precedent.

Bulgarian EU Affairs Minister Gergana Passy was quoted by Focus news agency as saying she believed the message of the minister's letter to be directed at the Dutch public rather than the Commission.

However, Passy admitted that unwelcome developments such as the release of several controversial 'businessmen' indicted by the judiciary, who then registered as election candidates, had not helped her country's image (EurActiv 29/05/09). In particular, she lamented that the so-called 'Galevi brothers', known as "the owners of the first private city in Bulgaria" (EurActiv 22/01/09), had recently been released from police custody to run in national elections, to be held on 5 July. Bulgaria appears to be a unique case where candidates for elections are given immunity from prosecution.

The Dutch government is under pressure from the far-right populists to adopt a tougher stance towards Bulgaria and Romania, especially since Geert Wilders's Freedom Party ranked second at the recent European elections, HotNews Romania writes. Wilders wants Bulgaria and Romania to be excluded from the EU, the agency recalls.

Positions:

Andreas Geiger, a partner in Brussels lobbying law firm Alber & Geiger, which until recently worked under contract to the Bulgarian interior ministry, told EurActiv that the demands by Timmermans were not surprising, considering the poor results of his party in the EU elections.

If there really was a political concern regarding Romania and Bulgaria, it would have to be voiced by heavyweights such as Germany, and not the Netherlands, Geiger said.

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