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24th Mar 2019

Bulgaria unhappy with 'arbitrary' EU corruption monitoring

New EU member Bulgaria is grumpy about the continued monitoring by the European Commission of its corruption levels, proposing the creation of EU-wide measuring standards in a bid to show that much of its sleazy image is mere "perception."

Only one and a half months after Bulgaria along with Romania entered the EU on 1 January, Bulgarian officials on Wednesday (14 February) signalled deep discontent with the fact that the commission is only scrutinizing the two newest EU members - and not the rest of the EU - on corruption.

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  • The Bulgarian parliament - "many conflicts of interest every day" (Photo: European Commission)

Sofia and Bucharest last year got the green light for EU entry only under the condition that they would after accession meet certain "benchmarks" on crime and corruption, facing a regime of continued EU monitoring which no new member state ever faced before.

The post-accession tutelage was imposed by the EU-25 because Sofia and Bucharest were seen as insufficiently prepared on the eve of accession - but Bulgaria believes the regime is unfair as nobody looks at deeply corrupt areas in the rest of Europe.

"Double standards are not to be tolerated. They are out of the question," Bulgarian interior minister Roumen Petkov told a round table discussion in Brussels.

"That's why we need to elaborate a comparative measurement for corruption," Mr Petkov said, proposing EU "common standards" which would bring an "objective evaluation of every member state."

Although the minister said that common EU measuring standards are a "very good anti-corruption measure itself for the whole EU," Bulgarian diplomats admitted the initiative was primarily meant to counter the image of their country as particularly sleazy.

"They are measuring only us," one contact said. "But if you compare, you will see that some member states will do worse than us," referring to the south of Italy as one possible example.

Facts and perception

Bulgarian NGO the Centre for the Study of Democracy said the EU corruption criteria should not only be based on the "perception" but also on hard facts - such as the number of people actually being victims of corruption.

"If the EU wants to be credible it will have to develop better standards. Identifying progress on corruption now remains largely arbitrary," the centre's Boyko Todorov said.

The think-tank characterised the widely-used rankings by global NGO Transparency International - which last year identified Bulgaria as more corrupt than states like Tunisia and Namibia - as "99% perception."

But commission officials present at the round table appeared to feel little urge to take up the Bulgarian ideas, merely saying that an expert group would soon start looking into "comparable crime statistics," including on corruption.

"We are at an early stage", said one EU official. "It's difficult because different member states record crimes differently," she added.

Another commission source indicated that Bulgaria has no choice but to accept the post-accession monitoring system even if it feels it is unfair.

"They as everyone else accepted the mechanism...this was also a means to avoid the postponement of accession," said the official, referring to the worst-case scenario of a one-year delay of EU entry which Sofia escaped.

Political and company graft

The Centre for the Study of Democracy said that Bulgarian EU accession in January had been accompanied by a "substantial drop in corruption" at lower government levels, for example in situations such as the handing out of construction permits.

"Even if this is a temporary accession bonus it opens a window of opportunity," according to Mr Todorov.

Sofia earlier this month received compliments from the commission for passing a constitutional amendment establishing, among other things, an independent inspectorate of the judiciary, which according to interior minister Petkov already led to the arrest of one shady prosecutor.

But Ognian Shentov, the Centre for the Study of Democracy's director, stressed that "a lot remains to be done at the level of political corruption."

"We are hearing quite numerous stories of many, many conflicts of interest every day."

Meanwhile, Bulgaria came under the spotlight for corporate fraud on Wednesday as Bulgarian, German and Swiss authorities uncovered an international crime scam involving €7.5 million worth of EU pre-accession funds and bogus sausage-making machines.

Romanian crisis

Most of the EU officials' worries are currently focused on the other January newcomer Romania however, which is locked in a severe political crisis centred around a feud between prime minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu and president Traian Basescu.

The crisis is being followed with concern in Brussels not only because it is seen as hampering post-accession reforms, but also because it could soon hit anti-corruption fighter and justice minister Monica Macovei.

The Romanian senate on Tuesday passed a motion that called for the resignation of Ms Macovei, who is highly regarded by the European Commission for shaking up the judiciary and for attacking the "untouchable" status of the political class.

"Romania owes a lot to Ms Macovei," said a commission official on Wednesday. "What she has done is extremely impressive."

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