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EU: Brussels Putting Romania, Bulgaria Under The Microscope

  • Breffni O'Rourke --> A Romanian couple celebrate in Bucharest as Romania entered the EU in January 2007 (AFP) European Union officials and experts will in the coming weeks be visiting Romania and Bulgaria to probe how well the union's two newest members are living up to their commitments to root out pervasive corruption.

In international indexes of corruption, Balkan neighbors Romania and Bulgaria regularly figure as about the worst among European nations. Both countries have become the "problem kids" of the European Union since they were admitted in January 2007, amid much celebration in Bucharest and Sofia.

Since then, Brussels has stopped millions of dollars in agriculture and infrastructure subsidies to Bulgaria because of fears the money is going astray. Billions more in EU transition funds are at stake for the same reason, and funds for Romania may also be frozen.

Romania has also attained a certain notoriety because of a major dispute with EU founding member Italy over serious crimes committed by Romanian immigrants. Rome perceives the situation as so serious that it is contemplating reimposing checks at its open borders to filter arrivals from Romania.

Decision Premature?

According to senior analyst Mike Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, many EU officials believe the decision to grant membership to the two countries was premature, given the magnitude of the internal problems they have.

"The widely held view in Brussels is that the European Council made a mistake in giving these two countries guaranteed accession in 2007 or 2008," Emerson says. "The view is that it would have been better to have spent a year or two with hard conditionality bearing down upon these two countries before giving any unconditional commitment to a date."

But European Commission spokesman Mark Gray told RFE/RL that Romania and Bulgaria were not given a clean slate when they joined. In view of the recognized problems, they were set a series of tasks.

"Both Bulgaria and Romania made a series of commitments when they joined the European Union at the start of 2007," Gray says. "Those commitments were that they would meet a series of benchmarks that we set to reform the judicial system, to fight corruption, and in the case of Bulgaria, also to address the question of organized crime."

Gray says a full report on the progress of the two countries is set for issue in July. He would not anticipate the contents of the report, except to express the European Commission's hope that the report would document an improving situation.

'Persistent Serious Noncompliance'

But an interim EU report issued in April points to trouble. Referring to Romania, it said: "There is a risk that persistent serious noncompliance with EU norms could trigger safeguard clauses for Romania on both agriculture and justice in 2008."

And Gray's own remarks indicate that, in judicial matters, there is a long way to go.

"One of the common problems we find in both countries is that there are very long investigations," Gray says, "but what we don't see is prosecutions, particularly in the area of high-level corruption and -- in the case of Bulgaria -- also of organized crime."

So the EU's present pressure on Bucharest and Sofia focuses not on creating laws, but on actually implementing them.

If words mean anything, Bulgaria is still determined to improve. Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said on May 11 that his center-left coalition must produce concrete improvements to satisfy the EU. He noted the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Plugchieva to oversee the use of EU funding.

While so much attention is being spent on Bulgaria and Romania in an attempt to bring them up to scratch, and to a lesser extent on the other Eastern European EU members, the prospects for further expansion of the union look dim.

"Certainly, the EU has a lot to do with consolidating the integration and enlargement process, which has gone so far, a lot of countries are preoccupied with their own affairs," says independent analyst
Adrian Ottnad. "So I'm not sure they will invite [new members] at the present time."

Steadied The Flank

Still, the European Commission insists that membership for Bulgaria and Romania has been a "success" and came at the right time.

Analysts can argue that letting the two obviously underprepared members into the club has steadied the eastern flank of the union, in a region where stability cannot be taken for granted. And as Gray suggests, the pacts are not only between the EU and the two governments, but between Europe and the citizens of the two nations.

"These countries are crucial, geopolitically for the European Union, but again, membership was not just about agreements between the European Union and governments, this is about improving the situation of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens," Gray says.

In this context, the EU's support for the process of reform will continue.

RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report