EU not tackling corruption in east, say justice experts
The EU should use the most of its pre-accession leverage in pushing countries to reform and deliver results in the fight against corruption and organised crime before they join the club, not to repeat the experience of Romania and Bulgaria, who are still struggling with these issues two years after accession, a panel of European justice experts told a conference in the European Parliament.
EU member states Romania and Bulgaria have more in common with candidate countries such as Croatia and other potential candidates in the western Balkans than just a shared Communist past, said a range of jurists and commentators brought together under at the International Leaders' Summit, a talk-fest organised by conservative US and European think-tanks, including the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
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The speakers said that much of the east is also afflicted by "widespread corruption", "organised crime", conflicts of interests and unjustifiable wealth of senior officials, lack of political accountability and a culture of impunity in public administration.
The list of criticisms was long, but, they declared, the EU seems ill equipped to do something about it.
"There are clear regional characteristics that appear across eastern Europe and the risk is that the lessons we learn in one country as it develops are not transferred to the next country," British prosecutor Rupert Vining said.
"We repeatedly see difficulties around party finances," he continued. "We also see the issue of possession of unexplained wealth by senior public figures."
Mr Vining worked as an expert on combating corruption in "peer review" missions on behalf of the European Commission to assess the situation in Romania and Bulgaria during their accession process, as well as in the now candidate country Croatia and potential candidate Montenegro.
He told the audience that he had thought before he went that it would be difficult to explain to the people in the region what unjustified assets meant and how they could be dealt with.
"But instead, I had no difficulty at all, because in each country I worked, people could immediately think of examples of who had what and how they couldn't possibly afford it on the €300 to €600 salary they were earning per month," Mr Vining said.
The British prosecutor stressed that the EU does not have unified rules and procedures on issues such as party financing. Still, that was no reason not to reform and impose as much transparency as possible, he said, because there was a "new era now, and people in the EU are getting tired of accession candidates who don't apply the appropriate standards and then backslide when they join the EU."
At the same time, Mr Vining argued that it was not realistic to believe that accession candidate countries can "fry the big fish", or deliver convictions in complex cases of high-level corruption in the very short time frame ahead of accession, especially since the people concerned are in power or connected to high-ranking officials.
Monica Macovei, a former Romanian justice minister acclaimed by the European Commission and the European Parliament for her reforms on the eve of EU accession, also stressed the difficulties of "fighting political corruption in a country where corrupt politicians have the power to change laws and adopt measures to protect themselves."
The former minister, a member of no political party and fired just four months after accession during a cabinet reshuffle, said that after Romania joined the EU, the politicians started to "undo" the reforms started only a couple of years before.
Ms Macovei said the pre-accession period was the only time the EU had enough leverage to push for actual reforms and obtain first results.
Yet a Croatian panelist, Natasha Srdoc from the pro-free-market Adriatic Institute of Public Policy, denounced the "very soft report" published by the European Commission earlier this month on the progress of her country.
She criticised the perspective of concluding negotiations by the end of 2009 - a schedule suggested by enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn, and denounced the recent contract killings of critical journalists, and the "widespread corruption" noted in the commission report.
She also warned of the strength of organised crime in the country, saying there was a "much stronger underground network than in Serbia, [and this] includes the intelligence services."
"There is not enough pressure now to reform before accession to the EU and NATO. Once a country is in the EU, the chances for reforms are lost," Ms Srdoc said, demanding "international monitoring" of Croatia, as the authorities were, in her view, incapable of dealing with these challenges.