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4th Feb 2023

Bulgaria and Romania worried that corruption may delay accession to border-free area

  • Romania's Traian Basescu (l) is worried about the fall-out of the commission's report (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission has once again slammed Bulgaria and Romania for their persistent corruption, exposure of public funds to fraud, inefficient judiciary and police, criticism that has the two countries worried that their planned accession to the border-free "Schengen" area next spring may be delayed.

Both Bulgaria and Romania are lacking the proper tools to "ensure that public funds are protected against conflicts of interest, fraud and corruption", say two reports published by the EU executive on Tuesday (20 July).

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Public procurements in these countries are dominated by "political favoritism," continuously changing rules are enabling corruption and conflicts of interest are rarely followed up by law enforcement authorities, while police and judges themselves are often prone to bribes, the reports show.

A spokesman for the commission confirmed that "EU funds are also affected" by these problems, but said that at this point in time, the commission was not envisaging any funds freeze, as it did in 2008, when Bulgaria saw €500 million of its farm aid suspended due to fraud.

"If we find specific problems with EU funds, we'll take appropriate actions. Our concern is that the taxpayer's money is protected," commission spokesperson Mark Gray said during a press conference on the matter.

A bi-annual exercise ever since Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, the reports give a sense of deja vu, noting "some progress" in certain areas, mostly legislative, while consistently finding shortcomings on the practical, law-enforcement part.

Following the funds freeze and a change of government in Sofia last year, Bulgaria meanwhile launched a series of investigations into corruption cases, some of which were targeting EU farm money.

Mr Gray praised the "strong momentum on reform" and the "political will" in the Bulgarian government to go after corrupt officials, while noting however the "specific situation" where convicted criminals can roam freely until all their appeal paths are exhausted.

There is also a "need for improvements of professional practice within the police, prosecution and courts for which external assistance will be needed," while the Bulgarian judiciary needs to "take the initiative more often and show a stronger sense of responsibility."

Romania, meanwhile, was given a strong warning for having watered down the powers of an investigative body looking at public officials' assets and financial interests. "This puts Romania in clear breach of its accession commitments," Mr Gray said.

The country's constitutional court on Monday struck down the new law, ruling on a challenge brought by President Traian Basescu. But it is up to the same parliament who initiated the amendments to fix the law and restore the powers of the agency.

Romanian MPs unwilling to commit to transparency and accountability are not the only ones taking heat from the commission. "The leadership of the judiciary has on occasion appeared unwilling to co-operate and take responsibility for reform," Mr Gray said, citing lenient sentences against corruption and a lack of accountability and sanctions against corrupt judges.

The lack of trust in the Bulgarian and Romanian judiciaries and police may however trigger a different sanction – postponing their planned integration into the European border-free zone dubbed the "Schengen area."

Speaking in Bucharest right after the publication of the two report, Mr Basescu said he was "worried" about the planned Schengen accession in March next year, despite the positive technical assessments so far.

The fear of Romanian and Bulgarian officials is that more northern EU states this fall may say that the lingering problems regarding the inefficient judiciary and corruption within police corps and border guards are enough of a reason not to trust the two countries with a shared border management and visa system.

The idea was already floated last year, but scrapped at the last moment from the final version of the commission's report, as it was considered to be too much of a stretch to link Schengen and euro accession to efforts in fighting corruption and organised crime.

The new reports do not mention the Schengen system. "It will be up to the Council [of ministers, representing the member states] to put two and two together. They can if they want to, but it will be a political decision," one EU official told this website.

For German centre-right MEP Ingeborg Grassle, this would be the logical conclusion, especially since in her opinion, slashing EU funds further is not an efficient method.

"The two countries already have a very low absorbtion rate of EU funds. We're not helping them by freezing the money. But I hope the Council is reading this report and taking it into consideration on Schengen," she said.

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