25th May 2022

Bulgaria under fire for corruption levels

The European Commission is next week to release a report harshly criticising Bulgaria for the way it has been handling EU funds, and suspend payments to two of the country's agencies charged with managing EU projects.

The total sums of money to be withheld from Bulgaria amount to more than €600 million, notably under the PHARE pre-accession programme, Bulgaria's National TV reported on Thursday morning (17 July).

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  • Bulgaria's Parliament - Sofia's record on handling EU aid has been castigated by the European Commission (Photo: EUobserver)

The draft report notes that while Bulgaria has received "important financial and technical support from the European Union in the pre-accession period," it has not been able to manage it properly.

"Bulgaria is experiencing difficulties in many of these programmes and has to demonstrate that sound financial management structures are in place and operating effectively. Administrative capacity is weak," reads the nine-page document seen by EUobserver.

"Beyond that, there have been serious allegations of irregularities as well as suspicions of fraud and conflicts of interest in the award of contracts," it adds.

Before becoming an EU member, Sofia benefited from different European programmes – such as PHARE, SAPARD and ISPA – which were designed to prepare the country for the absorption of larger amounts of EU aid later on.

Agencies approved by Brussels supervised the management of these programmes.

But "monitoring and audits show serious weaknesses in the management and control systems and point to a number of irregularities, suspected fraud cases and conflicts of interest between the programme administration and contractors," the text says.

"As a result, payments to two implementing agencies … have been suspended."

A 'grave problem'

The commission underlines that "[EU funds] are aimed at helping less favoured regions in Bulgaria, catalysing needed investment in transport, telecommunications and energy infrastructure, promoting competitiveness, fostering social cohesion and enhancing Bulgaria's overall economic performance and stability."

But "Bulgaria is not able to reap the full benefits of this assistance because of critical weaknesses in administrative and judicial capacity, be it at local, regional or central level," it goes on.

The EU executive points to "turnover of staff, unattractive salaries that create opportunities for corruption, and outdated, centralised procedures" in the public administration, as well as "lack of accountability and transparency in public procurement when tendering EU funds" as among the main problems.

"High-level corruption and organised crime exacerbates these problems of general weakness in administrative and judicial capacity," it adds, noting that it all amounts to a "grave problem."

Brussels also warns that unless Sofia takes effective steps to remedy the shortcomings, it may lose the pre-accession funds for good.

OLAF concerns

"Bulgaria itself has to make the commitment to cleanse its administration and ensure that the generous support it receives from the EU actually reaches its citizens and is not siphoned off by corrupt officials, operating together with organised crime," the commission concludes.

The report is to be released next Wednesday (23 July), together with Brussels' annual reports on justice and home affairs problems in Bulgaria and Romania.

It will come a week after leaks in Bulgarian media of a document by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) showing that OLAF is concerned about links between high-level politicians and those involved in the mishandling of funds in the country.

In a letter to Meglena Plugchieva, Bulgaria's deputy prime minister and in charge of overseeing how EU funds are spent, OLAF director Franz-Hermann Bruner wrote: "The Bulgarian government and state services have powerful forces who do not have an interest" in punishing some of the individuals currently under investigation for the fraudulent use of EU funds, in particular those of the SAPARD agricultural aid programme.

Bulgaria loses €220 million in EU money

Bulgaria has irreversibly lost €220 million of pre-accession EU funding over its persistent failure to tackle corruption, the European Commission announced on Tuesday.

Commission softens tone on Bulgaria, Romania corruption

The European Commission on Wednesday released its annual reports on the justice and home affairs situation in Bulgaria and Romania, criticising the two countries for their persistent corruption problems. But the tone of the criticism, notably towards Bulgaria, was considerably softer than in a previously circulated draft version of the documents.

Bulgaria and Romania taken to task by Brussels over corruption

The European Commission is on Wednesday set to strongly criticise Bulgaria and Romania for their failure to take effective action against corruption. Brussels' extra surveillance of the justice and home affairs fields in both countries is to continue for "some time to come."

Netherlands pushes for further EU sanctions against Bulgaria

Bulgaria could face further sanctions in the area of justice and home affairs, including having its membership of the EU's borderless Schengen area delayed, after recent reports from Brussels highlighted the country's problems with corruption.

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