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29th May 2022

Commission softens tone on Bulgaria, Romania corruption

  • Brussels is to keep monitoring Bulgaria and Romania "for some time." (Photo: Wikipedia)

The European Commission on Wednesday (23 July) 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.

Brussels also stopped short of activating a so-called safeguard clause that would have resulted in a refusal to recognise decisions by Bulgarian and Romanian courts throughout the EU.

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It affirmed, however, that formal monitoring in the justice and home affairs field in both countries would continue "for some time."

While acknowledging the efforts made by Bucharest and Sofia, it called on both to strengthen their fight against corruption – and organised crime in the case of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria's efforts to tackle "high-level corruption and organised crime is not producing enough results," commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said at a press conference presenting the reports in Brussels.

"A clear strategy and an unequivocal commitment at all levels to reform the system are needed. This is not simply a question of giving new institutions and processes time to prove their effectiveness," the Bulgarian report reads.

"Even with the existing structures – and despite their deficiencies – Bulgaria should be able to show results in the fight against organised crime and corruption, to prevent conflicts of interest and to deal convincingly with alleged connections between part of the political class, business and organised crime," it adds.

Softening the language

While the language remains very strong, it is softer than a draft version previously leaked to the media that referred to "a web" of conflict of interests and "apparent" connections between the Bulgarian "political class" in general and organised crime.

On Romania, the commission is overall less critical, although it says Bucharest "needs to do more." In particular, "the fight against corruption needs to be de-politicised" in the country.

"Genuine efforts by the administration at local, regional or central level to fight corruption are too often frustrated at political level," reads the Romanian document.

In both countries' reports however, indications that persistent problems may delay their membership of the EU's borderless Schengen area or the eurozone – present in both drafts – have been dropped.

Bulgaria punished over EU money mishandling

Beyond the justice and home affairs reports, the commission also released a separate document assessing Bulgaria's use of EU funds, announcing "a decision to formalise the suspension of certain payments."

Brussels has withdrawn the accreditation of two government agencies charged with handling EU money, effectively putting on hold €250 million in contracts yet to be signed under the PHARE pre-accession programme, which is aimed at improving the country's institutions.

Together with other frozen funds, including cohesion funds and monies from the agricultural aid programme SAPARD, the sums suspended so far for Bulgaria amount to more than €800 million.

"Bulgaria is not able to reap the full benefits of [EU funds] because of critical weakness in administrative and judicial capacity, be it at local, regional or central level," reads the document.

"The Bulgarian public administration suffers from a high turnover of staff, unattractive salaries which create opportunities for corruption, and outdated, centralized procedures," adds the report, whose language was also significantly softened compared to a draft version that spoke of "corrupt officials, operating together with organised crime."

However, the commission stressed that it is "prepared to reverse" its decision on suspending the pre-accession funds as soon as Bulgaria takes "the necessary steps" that will convince it to do so.

A need for 'concrete results'

Bulgarian EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva said the report on the country's progress in the field of justice and home affairs contained "political conclusions" that should make the Bulgarian government act, as "we [Bulgaria] have things to do."

"This is a report prepared by the commission with much care and with the full awareness that it contains political conclusions which must push Bulgaria to take measures immediately," she told a group of Bulgarian journalists.

She stressed that the language of the documents was "quite tough" and added that Bulgaria now needs to deliver "concrete results."

Asked if she had personally put any effort into softening the initial language of the Bulgarian report, she said: "All I could do, I did."

Speaking at a press conference in Bulgaria, the country's prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, admitted there was ground for the commission's criticism, but underlined one should not forget the positive aspects and progress mentioned in the report either.

He also regretted the withdrawal of the two agencies' accreditations, and said he expected all of the country's institutions to now "mobilise" to reverse the situation, Bulgarian news agency Focus reported.

For its part, Romania said the report "responded to its expectations."

"It is a balanced reflection of what we have done," Mihnea Motoc, Romania's ambassador to the EU, told EUobserver, stressing that such a document "needs to be critical in its nature."

It also presents Bucharest with "quite a clear understanding of what is the way ahead," he added.

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 draft talks of organised crime, corrupt officials and an outdated administration.

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."

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.

Orbán's new state of emergency under fire

Hungary's premier Viktor Orbán declared a state of emergency due to the war in neighbouring Ukraine hours after pushing a constitutional amendment through parliament, where two-thirds of MPs are controlled by his Fidesz party, allowing his government special powers.

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