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Bulgarian Corruption Allegations Prompt Threat Of EU Fund Freeze

BRUSSELS -- A leaked European Union report suggests the bloc is preparing to freeze around 1 billion euros in aid money earmarked for Bulgaria over suspicions it is being "siphoned off" by corrupt officials.

The European Commission will take a final decision on the issue at its next meeting on July 23.

Should it materialize, an EU decision to freeze some of its aid money for Bulgaria would at this stage amount to a warning shot across Sofia's bow.

The freeze, mainly affecting payments for large infrastructure and agricultural projects, would be temporary. It would hand down a symbolic humiliation to Sofia, as never before has the EU had to publicly chastise one of its own member states for debilitating levels of corruption.

But the funds would not necessarily be lost for good, as EU aid money can normally be claimed over a period of years.

Penetrated By Corruption?

The EU constantly monitors the spending of its funds, and instances where money paid out has been reclaimed are not unusual. Also, most new member states struggle to use up all of their aid money before its term expires. But the reasons for this are mostly bureaucratic, stemming from an administrative inability to cope with claiming and allocating EU funds.

What marks out Bulgaria is the amount of money in question and the fact that the EU has been forced to conclude -- so far only reportedly -- that the entire fabric of its aid-delivery mechanism in Bulgaria is hopelessly penetrated by corruption. The freeze would affect key sectors of the Bulgarian economy -- transport, telecommunications, energy, enterprise.

The decision on July 23 will not be automatic, however, as the European Commission is made up of representatives coming from all 27 member states, including Bulgaria. Although technically politically independent from their native governments, the commissioners must reckon with the political fallout of their decisions.

Implicated In Fraud

In another leaked report, this time submitted to Sofia by the EU's anticorruption watchdog OLAF, Bulgaria was told last week that the country's government and the civil service -- together with law enforcement agencies and the judiciary -- are implicated in fraud.

Allegations of close links between the Bulgarian government and the criminal underworld are nothing new. The EU has long complained that authorities in Sofia have failed to prosecute a single suspect in the wave of high-profile contract killings which have plagued the country in recent years.

Now, the European Commission, in its leaked report -- which officials in Brussels stress is a draft without any formal status or consequence at this stage -- reportedly says the Bulgarian authorities must "cleanse" their ranks and convince the EU they can deliver the aid money to their citizens.

The fact that both the OLAF letter and the EU report were leaked to the media in Bulgaria itself scarcely endears the authorities in Sofia to Brussels. The Bulgarian government's recent decision to hire an Austrian subsidiary of a U.S. public-releations company to improve its image in the eyes of the outside world is also bound to raise a few eyebrows in Brussels.