Thursday, September 3, 2009

Romania snubs Netherlands over criticisms

Romania's foreign minister cancelled yesterday's (2 September) planned visit to the Netherlands, in protest against a Dutch move to deny Bucharest and Sofia accession to the Schengen border-free area until the countries improve their record in fighting corruption and organised crime.

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 the two countries would be unable to apply Community law correctly and their citizens would not be able to fully enjoy their rights as EU citizens. A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both member states. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards, included in the accession treaties and 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. Such an unprecedented decision, if applied, would also badly hurt the countries' reputations. The latest reports on Bulgaria and Romania, published on 22 July, conveyed the message that the CVM is starting to bear fruit. For Romania, the Commission notes that the country's authorities have reacted effectively to concerns raised by previous assessments (EurActiv 23/07/09), while in the case of Bulgaria, a "positive change of attitude" is seen. For Bulgaria, the Commission has set out 21 tasks that must be carried out, ranging from developing an integrated strategy against organised crime and corruption to publishing all court decisions. In the case of Romania, the to-do list consists of 16 items, from adopting new civil and criminal procedure codes to ensuring that parliamentarians are not excluded from criminal investigations. On the occasion of the July report, the Commission had considered linking the removal of the CVM with the two countries' accession to Schengen, but after a discussion, the idea was abandoned. Bulgaria and Romania have both expressed their ambition to join the borderless Schengen area by 2011. The annual reports on Bulgaria and Romania are prepared by the Commission's secretariat-general under the authority of President José Manuel Barroso, in agreement with Vice-President Jacques Barrot.

Romanian Foreign Minister Cristian Diaconescu decided to cancel his trip to the Hague, following the publication by the Dutch authorities of a document containing "radical accents" and "excessive interpretations" on the functioning of the rule of law in Romania, his office announced.

The Dutch foreign ministry published on its official webpage a press release entitled 'Progress in Romania and Bulgaria inadequate, says government'. According to press reports, the document sent by the ministers of foreign affairs, European affairs and justice to the Dutch parliament reads that "the new EU member states Romania and Bulgaria are still doing too little to tackle corruption and organised crime, and their management of EU funds is still below par". "The [Dutch] government will continue to press for improvements in both countries at European level. If this does not happen, it will have consequences for the transfer of EU funds to the two countries and their accession to the Schengen area," the document further reads.

Up to now, Bulgaria has lost millions of euros as a consequence of its inadequate management of EU funding (EurActiv 26/11/09). However, this does not represent a direct 'punishment' for alleged corruption, as the Dutch paper appears to suggest. Moreover, the accession of the two countries to the borderless Schengen space has never been officially linked to their progress under the CVM. "Accession to the Schengen area would mean the disappearance of controls at the countries' internal borders.

The [Dutch] government believes that this should not happen until sufficient trust exists among the Schengen partners. Romania and Bulgaria still suffer from large-scale corruption, including in the police force, whereas impeccable credentials are required in tackling trafficking in persons and illegal immigration," the paper reads.

Bucharest fumes, wants explanations

Romania stated that it expects "explanations" from the Hague. "The [Romanian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers that the move to make the aforementioned document public is unfriendly and inappropriate to the state of the relations between the two countries," reads an official communiqué by the Bucharest authorities. Bucharest expresses further its amazement that the blow came from the Netherlands, the country ranked first by volume of invested capital in Romania (over 4.5 billion euros).

Bulgaria confirms fears

In the meantime, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Rumiana Jeleva reportedly confirmed that Western European countries have been insisting on tougher sanctions against Sofia and Bucharest, due to their slow progress under the CVM. She added that this was taking place despite criticism concerning the former Bulgarian Socialist-dominated coalition government. According to Jeleva, "intensive discussions" were taking place in EU circles in order to sanction Bulgaria and Romania, Focus news agency reported. New Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, leader of the EPP-affiliated GERB party, which won 39.7% of the vote at the recent national elections and now controls 116 in the 240-seat parliament (see EurActiv 16/07/09), is expected in Brussels for his first visit on 9-10 September. The Bulgarian press commented that one of the messages by Borissov to Barroso would be that without EU support, his minority government may fall, allowing the former Socialist-dominated coalition to sneak back into power.

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