Sunday

19th Feb 2017

EU commission defends Romania-Bulgaria monitoring project

  • Statue in Sofia: Judges in Bulgaria and Romania are too lenient in dealing with corruption, the report said (Photo: sludgegulper)

The European Commission on Tuesday (23 March) defended its special monitoring project on the rule of law in Bulgaria and Romania, despite the limited results registered three years after the two countries joined the bloc.

"The European Commission urges authorities in Bulgaria and Romania to step up their efforts especially in turning arrests and indictments into final sentences," Mark Gray, the commission's spokesman said, while presenting the latest bi-annual reports on the two countries' justice systems.

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Three years after joining the EU the two countries still have "a lot of work" ahead and have failed to produce any convictions in high level corruption cases, while regular graft is still punished with "lenient" sentences, the reports said.

The findings raise the question as to the utility of the commission's monitoring exercise, since the systematic criticism seems to have had little impact in Sofia and Bucharest.

Both Bulgaria and Romania agreed in 2007 as they joined the EU to be subject to unprecedented monitoring from the European Commission in order to stem corruption and organised crime networks. After joining, however, the commission's leverage for progress fell away.

Initially set up for a maximum of three years, the scrutiny was extended last year for an indefinite period, despite lobbying from both capitals to draw up an exit strategy.

Mr Gray defended the monitoring system as a "valuable instrument in keeping the reform process on track" and highlighted some of the successes - keeping alive the special anti-corruption prosecution unit in Romania and issuing new laws on conflict of interests and fraud in Bulgaria.

The new government in Sofia, which came to power last summer precisely on an anti-corruption platform, has adopted some of the recommendations made by Brussels in the past years, such as joint investigation teams on the abuse of EU funds and organised crime. But the commission is still cautious in its praise and has stressed the need to see more results on the ground.

In Romania, on the other hand, politicians had little interest in reforms in the second half of 2009, as they were busy campaigning for the presidential elections. Only the special anti-corruption prosecutors are praised for keeping a steady level of new investigations and indictments.

"Acting upon all recommendations of the European Commission should become a matter of national priority," Mr Gray stressed. Bulgaria still needs to undergo profound judicial reforms, while Romania's magistrates need to be spurred further to modernise the system, he added.

One-off

A similar monitoring system for the next country in line to join the EU - Croatia - is not currently being considered, the spokesman said.

"Our clear desire is that necessary reforms are done before accession," Mr Gray stressed.

His defence of the continued monitoring was shared by both MEPs and NGOs dealing with organised crime and corruption.

"Repeated criticism doesn't mean useless criticism, but a path towards change," Romanian centre-right MEP Monica Macovei told this website.

A former minister of justice before and shortly after Romania joined the EU, Ms Macovei argued that judicial co-operation in the EU is based on mutual trust and "there will be no trust in the Romanian justice system unless some changes happen."

Transparency International, a watchdog dealing with corruption issues, also welcomed the commission's assessment and stressed the need "to ensure the irreversible separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judiciary."

No funds frozen

Although there is no direct linkage between the judicial monitoring and distribution of EU funds, in 2008, the commission froze hundreds of millions of euro, mostly for Bulgaria, due to bogus projects and corrupt networks tapping community money.

Payments have since been resumed for both countries, Mr Gray said, after they put in place better control mechanisms. Environment projects in Bulgaria have been suspended however, due to irregularities in the public tenders.

"There is a need to apply the lessons learned, for better management of funds and to strengthen the judiciary to sanction fraud," Mr Gray noted.

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