Ten years on, Romania and Bulgaria still dogged by corruption
By Eszter Zalan
Key recommendations on justice reform and the fight against corruption have still not been fulfilled by Romania and Bulgaria, despite some progress being made, the European Commission said in a monitoring report.
Assessing the trends over the last decade, the report published on Wednesday (25 January) concludes that while Romania can be credited for “major progress”, especially in its fight against high-level corruption, Bulgaria’s progress “has not been as fast as hoped for”.
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The two countries joined the EU 10 years ago on 1 January 2007.
The reports on the so-called Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) are designed to push governments to root out corruption, cronyism, and organised crime.
Meeting EU requirements in these areas are a political pre-requisite for the two countries to join the passport-free Schengen zone.
The commission report notes that in Romania, “since 2013 the track record of the institutions involved in investigating, prosecuting and ruling on high-level corruption has been strong with regular indictments and conclusion of cases concerning politicians of all ranks and parties, as well as civil servants, magistrates and businessmen”.
Progress has been slower on the front in fighting lower level corruption. The commission emphasises the need for the forthcoming code of conduct for parliamentarians to include respect for the independence of the judiciary.
It also says rules for lifting the immunity of parliamentarians should become clearer to make sure they are not used to avoid justice.
The report and EU officials say the main test for Romania is to put in place internal guarantees that the achieved reforms are “irreversible”.
“The speed of this process [lifting the CVM process] depends on how quickly the Romanian authorities are able to take the remaining steps in an irreversible way, in a way that does not call into question the progress made so far,” commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said in a statement.
'The fight is on'
Irreversibility is at stake in Romania.
Plans introduced by the new Socialist government last Wednesday to decriminalise some offences and pardon some convicted prisoners through emergency decrees could undermine the crackdown on corruption.
The government says it wants to ease the country's overcrowded prisons.
The plans drew thousands of protestors to the streets in Bucharest.
The EU commission report highlights the issue in a footnote only, saying it “could affect the legal framework for corruption and the result of the fight against corruption”.
A commission official said the report is focusing on the long term, adding that the EU executive is “following events closely, but doesn’t comment on ongoing legislative procedure”.
Paul Ivan, from the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels, told this website: “While overcrowding is a problem, nobody really believes that this was the real motivation behind the government’s proposals.”
He said the government’s way of putting the proposals forward in a non-transparent way, for instance having no discussion about them in the parliament, only reinforced the image that the party “is not interested in pragmatic solutions, but is driven by self-interest to free their colleagues”.
Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, who joined protesters over the weekend, said he would put the issue to a referendum, while the governing Socialist party threatened him with impeachment.
Ivan said however that the Socialists might not go that far, as it could be a politically very damaging move.
A commission official admitted the record is “never going to be 100 percent”, but EU experts are looking for a sustainable track record in judiciary and fight against corruption.
“The fight is on, it hasn’t been settled yet,” Ivan said on Romania’s current political impasse.
In the meantime, Bulgaria is still lagging behind.
It needs to complete the implementation of a national anti-corruption strategy, to set up an anti-corruption authority, and reinforce the independence of the judiciary.
It also has to tackle the lack of final convictions in high-end organised crime cases.
Brussels expects the new government to make an extra push on reforms.
The commission is planning to put out another monitoring report in December. It wants to speed up the process to fullfill president Jean-Claude Juncker’s commitment to lift the CVMs before the end of his mandate.
“It is feasible for that to happen for the two countries within the target the president has set,” a commission official said.
Romania and Bulgaria will hold the EU's rotating presidency in 2018 and 2019, shedding extra light on them.
Once the commission gives the green light, other member states also need to agree that the countries, members of the EU for the past decade, have made enough progress.