Friday, July 17, 2009

Brussels to continue monitoring of Bulgaria and Romania

VALENTINA POP
EUOBSERVER/BRUSSELS – The EU commission is next week set to recommend that Bulgaria and Romania continue to stay under a special monitoring mechanism beyond 2009, due to their slow progress in justice reforms and the fight against corruption and organised crime.

The commission reports, due on Wednesday (22 July), take stock of the two countries in their third year of EU membership, with neither Bulgaria nor Romania having made enough progress for the special monitoring to be lifted.The Parliament in Sofia has a new majority, elected on an anti-corruption ticket.

Romanian authorities are trying to lobby for an 'exit strategy' from the so-called cooperation and verification mechanism, set up in the eve of EU accession due to the incomplete reforms and rampant corruption in both countries.

But a core group of donor countries to the EU budget, notably Germany, the Netherlands, as well as Sweden -currently chairing the bloc's rotating presidency – Denmark and Austria are said to be staunchly against lifting the mechanism.

Although the commission clearly lacks the strong leverage it has on countries before they become members, its continued monitoring has at least prevented major relapses.For instance, in Romania, some attempts by the political class to scrap the anti-corruption prosecutor's office were thwarted in the context of the commission's monitoring.

The EU executive is set to explain that the monitoring cannot be lifted until all the so-called benchmarks are met, that is the set of measures both Bulgaria and Romania committed themselves to upon accession.They range from specific actions like setting up a special agency to deal with integrity issues and asset declarations of public officials to more complex problems, such as "ensuring an efficient and transparent judicial system."For both countries, the commission will once again speak of the lack of political will to fight corruption, with the Romanian Parliament criticised for blocking graft investigations and judges for allowing trials to be dragged on forever or giving too lenient sentences.

One of Bucharest's small advances will be the adoption of new penal and civil codes, but the commission will also want to see the impact of the new legislation in the coming years.Sofia, for its part, will be criticised for not putting mafia bosses on trial, especially the ones with strong political connections and access to EU funds.

The commission, however, is unlikely to recommend any sanctions, as it did last summer, when it decided to freeze some €800 million in EU aid for Bulgaria, due to fraud and links to organised crime.Romania also had some €190 million in agricultural funding suspended last year, but the commission did not link it with the justice report in the summer.

The payments have since been resumed after the Romanian authorities revamped the control mechanisms for the funds.

A general report on fraud and irregularities with EU money in 2008 issued on Wednesday showed Romania with the highest number of potential fraud cases from pre-accession funds.This type of financial assistance started before the country joined but is still ongoing until the end of this year.

Romania had over a billion euros earmarked from this fund for 2008 and reported 246 cases of irregularities and fraud, affecting projects worth a total of €21 million, of which €16 million had to be recovered by the commission. Bulgaria is next in line, with 140 cases and €9 million to be recovered. The total sum affected by irregularities and potential fraud is bigger in Bulgaria, clocking in at €28 million.

Bleak perspectives

The commission is likely to emphasize that it is up to the Bulgarian and Romanian people themselves to form the critical mass necessary to push for real reforms, but political perspectives on the ground are rather bleak.In Bucharest, the majority of the Parliament elected last November wants to preserve the old status quo, and not even young politicians are a guarantee for change and transparency.

On Tuesday, the 32-year old minister of Youth and Sports, Monica Iacob-Ridzi, was forced to resign amid allegations of embezzlement of public money. Presidential elections due this November are also unlikely to change the situation. The incumbent president, Traian Basescu, won in 2004 on a strong anti-corruption ticket, but even his centre-right Democratic Liberal party (PDL) is only half-heartedly backing that type of discourse.In addition, his own transparency and non-nepotism credentials have come under fire, after his daughter was elected as MEP with the tacit backing and funding of the PDL.

Mr Basescu's main challenger, Social-Democrat leader Mircea Geoana, is respected on an international level after having served as foreign minister and ambassador in Washington. But he has failed to reform his own party which inherited most of the Communist old guard, highly criticised for its corrupt and non-transparent practices.With the landslide victory of Boiko Borisov's centre-right party, Bulgaria at least has a majority in the new Parliament which ran on a strong anti-corruption ticket.

Yet commission officials are cautious about placing too much hope in the new Prime Minister's populist declarations.A former bodyguard of the Communist Party leader, Mr Borisov made little progress as mayor of Sofia in cracking down on the mafia killings taking place on the streets of the Bulgarian capital. Some press reports also linked him with mafia networks, an allegation Mr Borisov staunchly rejects

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