Tuesday, June 7, 2011

EU's anti-corruption drive hits Bulgaria, Romania

Published: 07 June 2011
Published on EurActiv (http://www.euractiv.com)

The European Commission yesterday (6 June) unveiled its first ever proposal to address corruption at EU level. Meanwhile, pressure is growing on Bulgaria and Romania to tackle corruption and mafia crime as preconditions of their accession to the EU's Schengen borderless area.

Corruption is estimated to cost the EU economy €120 billion per year. That is one percent of EU GDP and represents only a little less than the annual budget of the European Union.

According to the European Commission, corruption harms all member states and the EU as a whole, lowering investment levels, hampering the fair operation of the internal market and reducing public finances. Different forms of corruption are listed: political corruption, corrupt activities committed by and with organised criminal groups, private-to-private corruption or petty corruption.

According to specialists, the fight against corruption at EU level may in future help to reduce the risk of crises such as those seen in Greece and Portugal.

Cecilia Malmström, the EU's commissioner for home affairs, unveiled a set of measures to address more vigorously the serious harm that corruption brings to European societies – economically, socially and politically.

"While there are quite sophisticated legal frameworks at international and European level, we have seen that implementation among EU member states is very uneven. It is clear to me that there is not enough determination amongst politicians and decision-makers to fight this crime," Malmström said.

The commissioner announced the establishment of an EU anti-corruption reporting mechanism, capable of identifying "failures and vulnerabilities across the 27 EU member states".

"This EU Anti-Corruption Report will identify trends and weaknesses that need to be addressed […] It will be issued by the Commission every two years, starting in 2013, and be based on inputs from a variety of sources, including the existing monitoring mechanisms (by the Council of Europe, the OECD and the United Nations)," she said.

Distant objectives?

But while the 2013 objective may appear distant, the political mood may produce results sooner. Pressure is already growing for Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the EU's border-free Schengen area to be delayed, until the countries have brought to an end their perceived model of a criminal transition to a market economy.

When Bulgaria and Romania joined 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.

The EU established a monitoring mechanism to accompany the initial period of Bulgaria and Romania's accession, a first in the bloc's history. However, four-and-a-half years later, little improvement has been made and a decision to keep the monitoring mechanism in place for another year was adopted.

Last December, France and Germany were the first to ask for Bulgaria and Romania's Schengen accession to be linked to their ability to get rid of the monitoring mechanism. Technically, both Romania and Bulgaria have satisfied the criteria for Schengen accession.

Romania in particular reacted angrily, claiming that older EU members were being unfair. Legally speaking, the two issues are indeed unrelated.

The EU's justice and home affairs ministers are meeting on 9 and 10 June in Luxembourg to discuss the Schengen bids of Romania and Bulgaria. Reportedly, Paris and Berlin now have the support of several other older EU members, including Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark, for postponing their accession.

Unnamed diplomats were quoted by the international press as saying that it would be "a matter of years rather than months" before Romania and Bulgaria could join Schengen.

A diplomat told EurActiv that the biggest concern was that information in the confidential databases of Schengen could become available to the Bulgarian mafia.

A recent wiretap scandal illustrates the fact that Bulgaria has proven unable to secure confidential information. In addition, recently published WikiLeaks cables from the US Embassy in Sofia described Boyko Borissov, the country's prime minister, as a person with links to the country's deep underground.

The European Parliament will assess today whether Bulgaria and Romania are ready to join the Schengen passport-free zone. The Parliament's civil liberties committee says they are, but also stresses that MEPs must be kept informed of additional measures to be taken in the Bulgaria-Turkey-Greece area to deal with any surge in migration pressure.

Reacting to the announcement by Commissioner Malmström, Sarah Ludford MEP (UK), spokesperson for the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, said that corruption had long been "the elephant in the room," with much awareness of its presence but too little discussion of what to do about it.

Ludford said the European Parliament was going to debate Bulgaria and Romania's entry to the Schengen border-free area today (7 June).

"The [Parliament] is set to approve their accession because they meet current criteria, but is examining in parallel a strengthened Schengen assessment mechanism which would encompass corruption, organised crime and judicial independence," she said.

"The accession to the EU of countries with a weaker tradition of law enforcement means the EU must bolster its defences. It is no longer credible to exclude mafia-type crime from analysis of fitness to join the EU and Schengen," Ludford concluded.

Transparency International (TI), the global coalition against corruption, welcomed the adoption of the new European Union-wide anti-corruption package announced by the European Commission. It considered it to be a first step in responding to the issue of corruption in the EU.

It is hoped that the new reporting tool may help reduce the risk of crises such as in Greece and Portugal in future. It may also assist in the assessment of a country's public finances for international aid packages, as currently undertaken by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank, TI said.

However, in the long run, there is an urgent need for a more comprehensive anti-corruption strategy encompassing all EU policies, the group stated.

British MEP Timothy Kirkhope, spokesperson for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, said he accepted that Bulgaria and Romania might have met the technical standards for entry into the zone, but he would raise concerns as to whether the standards used to measure readiness were now outdated.

He said he would argue that stronger standards to ensure there was no danger of corruption on Europe's borders were needed.
Next Steps
9-10 June: Justice and Home Affairs Council in Luxembourg to discuss stricter Schengen rules and Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the border-free area.

European Union
Commission: Commission fights corruption: a stronger commitment for greater results
Commission: Commission steps up efforts to forge a comprehensive anti-corruption policy at EU level
Parliament: Report on the draft Council decision on the full application of the provisions of the Schengen acquis in the Republic of Bulgaria and RomaniaNGOs and Think-Tanks
Transparency International: Transparency International welcomes new European Commission anti-corruption packagePress articles
HotNews, Romania: Dutch Ambassador to the EU: I do not believe Romania has a rule of law
FT: EU ready to set date for Croatia to join bloc
Dnevnik, the EurActiv partner in Bulgaria: Борисов - в огледалото на американските посланици
Dnevnik, the EurActiv partner in Bulgaria: Борисов в Wikileaks: На българския премиер трябва да му се казва какво да прави
Dnevnik, the EurActiv partner in Bulgaria: Премиерът за докладите в Wikileaks: За никого не са написали нещо хубаво (допълнена)

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