BRUSSELS -- A series of reports released by the European Commission sharply criticize the EU's newest members, Bulgaria and Romania, for high levels of corruption. The situation is especially stark in Bulgaria, where the EU has suspended some aid payments, arguing the authorities there have failed to prevent large-scale fraud or prosecute the perpetrators.
The gist of the European Commission's message to Bulgaria and Romania is that there is no properly functioning rule of law in either country.
However, the commission only decided to apply sanctions against Bulgaria, where there is a real risk that hundreds of millions of euros in EU aid money will be siphoned off by corrupt officials with links to organized crime.
"Right now, Bulgaria is experiencing difficulties in certain programs and has to demonstrate that sound financial management structures are in place and operating effectively. We are talking about taxpayers' money here," European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said in announcing the commission's decision to freeze more than 500 million euros ($787 million) in EU assistance.
It is the fact that what is at stake in Bulgaria is EU taxpayers' money that makes the issue very sensitive for Brussels. Public confidence in the EU has been low in many member states for a number of years. Many blame the EU's various woes on enlargement and, as a result, attempts to revitalize the bloc have suffered a series of defeats at the hands of disgruntled electorates.
At this stage, the commission's decision amounts to little more than a warning shot across Bulgaria's bows. The funds affected are a spillover from the preaccession period and Sofia has until the end of 2009 to claim most of them.
But Sofia will be equally aware that Brussels will be keeping a sharp eye on the billions of euros in aid earmarked for Bulgaria between 2007-13 in full-fledged EU support as a member state. The so-called structural funds alone are worth nearly 7 billion euros ($11 billion).
Reflecting the political sensitivity of the issue, the commission's final report on Bulgaria omitted some of the tougher language contained in earlier, leaked drafts. Thus, for example, the final document no longer says Bulgarian authorities must "cleanse" their ranks.
The commission also decided against recommending broader sanctions available to it, such as denying EU-wide recognition to Bulgarian court decisions. There is concern in Brussels that isolating Sofia may actually exacerbate its problems.
However, the overall verdict on Bulgaria is bleak. The bare bones of the rule of law are in place in the country, but, as spokesman Laitenberger said, there are few results to show the system works.
Romania Better, But 'Fragile'
Romania is in a slightly better position. At least in the view of the European Commission, its problems are mostly limited to corruption without involving a massive infiltration of government structures by organized crime, as in Bulgaria.
"Overall, the situation in Romania is a mixed picture," commission spokesman Laitenberger said. "The fundamental elements of a functioning system are in place, but the foundation is still fragile and decisions on high-level corruption are still too politicized. Commitment to reform by Romania's key institutions and bodies is still uneven. While progress on judicial reform has been made, there is a need for the system to show there are penalties for high-level corruption."
Laitenberger said the European Commission will revisit the situation in Romania and Bulgaria next year.
He also rejected suggestions the EU made a mistake in 2007 by admitting Bulgaria and Romania in what has now turned out to be an unfit state for membership. Laitenberger argued that the "picture is a mixed one" in both countries and suggested their early EU membership has benefited both the bloc and the two countries themselves.
"This is not a report about the situation of Romania and Bulgaria all across the board," Laitenberger said. "When the decision for enlargement was taken, the member states and the commission were fully aware that certain issues remained, and it was everybody's conviction at the time that the best way forward, the best momentum forward, would be to address these issues after membership."
Laitenberger concluded that the EU's enlargement remains "a success."
But this view was not shared by the European Parliament's conservative European People's Party faction. The EU's largest political grouping issued a statement saying Bulgaria has "completely failed" to honor its commitments to the EU. The statement also warned Sofia of growing distrust among other EU governments and investors, predicting the country will have problems joining the EU's borderless Schengen space and its common currency, the euro.
Elmar Brok, a senior German Christian Democrat deputy and a former head of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the situation in both Romania and Bulgaria "has become worse rather than better" since their accession to the EU.