Thursday, July 23, 2009

EU Report Finds Bulgaria and Romania Beset With Problems

July 23, 2009
The New York Times
By STEPHEN CASTLE

BRUSSELS — Thirty months after joining the European Union, Bulgaria and Romania are still plagued by widespread fraud, corruption and organized crime, according to a report published Wednesday that also questions the will of political leaders to deliver the necessary reforms.

The hard-hitting judgment from the European Commission listed an array of deficiencies, citing inadequate measures to fight money-laundering, vote-buying, fraud and killings linked to organized crime.

The report said Bulgaria had made some progress in restructuring its criminal prosecution service and recording more convictions over all. It suggests that in other respects, however, not much has improved since 2008 when the commission issued its last stern warning.

The slow pace of change in Bulgaria and the lack of convictions in high-profile corruption cases have served as a potent example of the problems of bringing fragile ex-Communist nations into the European mainstream.“The capacity of enforcement authorities to deal with high-level corruption,” the report said, “has not increased on a general scale over the last 12 months.”Romania fared slightly better in the report, though it was told that its reform efforts remain “fragmented.”With Croatia in talks to join the E.U., and several other nations in Southern and Eastern Europe also hoping to do so, the report may reinforce growing skepticism in some European capitals about the wisdom of further expansion.“The bad news, and the slowdown in terms of reform in Romania and Bulgaria, can only weaken the case for further enlargement of the E.U.,” said Nicu Popescu, research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

However, he added that both countries would have been in worse shape had they not been admitted to the E.U. in 2007, and are nevertheless much more successful than other nations in the region like Moldova or Ukraine.“In fact enlargement has been a success because, though they are perceived to be bad by E.U. standards, Romania and Bulgaria are hugely successful by Eastern European standards,” Mr. Popescu added.

In a statement, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, underlined the need for greater political commitment to the task of rooting out corruption.“Citizens in both countries and across the rest of Europe must feel that no one is above the law,” he said.Following publication of the report Bulgaria was given 21 recommended tasks to carry out, while Romania given 16.

A special monitoring system for both countries, set up when the two countries joined the E.U. because of concerns that they weren’t ready, is to be extended into 2010.So serious are the problems in Bulgaria that the European Commission continues to freeze around €500 million, or $710 million, from a pool of subsidy money that was intended to help Bulgaria make the necessary economic and management reforms.

The commission had previously decided to withhold payment of more than €290 million because of Bulgaria’s lack of progress. Around €115 million that were frozen last year have been released.The report on Wednesday contains an implicit threat that further E.U. subsidy payments will be held up if corrective action is not taken.There was no direct mention of the two countries’ ambitions to join the Schengen zone, Europe’s passport-free travel zone, though the tone of the documents released Wednesday suggest that is not a likely prospect in the near future.For Bulgaria, the report comes at a time of political transition as a newly elected center-right government prepares to take power.

It faces pressure to deliver visible examples of progress in order to get funds released.The party of the new Bulgarian prime minister, Boiko Borisov, responded to the report by reiterating a pledge to step up the fight against corruption.“To soften Brussels’s tone, it is important to demonstrate political will from day one in office of the new government,” said Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the chairman of Mr. Borisov’s party, GERB, according to Reuters.

The Romanian justice minister, Catalin Predoiu, called for a political consensus that would enable the judicial system to function efficiently and the courts to take fast decisions.“With or without a monitoring mechanism, Romania will remain committed to pursuing judicial reforms because such reforms are, first of all, in the interest of its citizens,” Mr. Predoiu said.

Both governments know it will be hard to win over critics. Though new procedures in Bulgaria have led to the imprisonment of some members of organized crime groups, “killings linked with organized crime continue and known criminals are not apprehended,” the report said.“There is a need for clear evidence that the authorities and the political class are unequivocally committed to eradicating the root-causes of the problem,” it added.The document highlighted “piecemeal” efforts against corruption and “unreasonable” delays in judicial proceedings.

In financial investigations, it said, “too few assets are frozen and too late.”The document also cited reports of vote-buying during European and national elections in July.As for Romania, the report said that permanent political infighting is hindering reform efforts.“Against this background the positive results of concrete reform efforts at technical level remain fragmented, reforms have not yet taken firmly root and shortcomings persist.”Romania’s record on combating corruption was questioned. “It is striking,” the report said, “that virtually none of the cases of highest public interest have yet reached a decision.”

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