When Bulgaria and Romania became members of the European Union in 2007, the European Commission imposed one unprecedented condition, usually reserved for non-EU countries wanting to join: a temporary monitoring of the reforms in the two Balkan countries that many deemed were not ready to join the bloc. Seven years later, the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, still stands and the European Commission is showing no signs it will end it any time soon.
In the latest batch of reports under the mechanism, presented today, Brussels continued to scold Bulgaria and Romania on deficiencies in the rule of law, judicial reform and the fight against corruption. But the two reports tell two different stories on the progress made in these areas. In Bulgaria “overall progress has not yet been sufficient and remains fragile”. Romania on the other hand has taken "some significant steps… [showing] a real commitment to reform".
In what Jonathan Allen, the British Ambassador to Bulgaria, called “depressing reading,” on his Twitter account, the commission adopted a noticeably harsher tone with Bulgaria.
More worryingly than its inability to reform the slow and ineffective justice system and to fight both corruption and organised crime, the Commission noted that three different governments since the last report was published in 2012 could not build consensus on how to continue reforms. The government of Boyko Borisov fell in early 2013 after anti-poverty protests and was replaced by an interim cabinet. After snap elections in May, the seemingly technocratic cabinet led by Plamen Oresharski has been embroiled in a series of political controversies that led to daily anti-government protests that have now lasted more than 200 days.
The commission writes about “repeated controversies such as appointments having to be aborted due to integrity issues” - a veiled reference to the nomination of Delyan Peevski, a media mogul with dubious reputation, as the head of the powerful national security agency last June. Such cases, the commission writes, affect public confidence that is already eroded by “a succession of revelations about political influence on the judicial system” and its inability to deliver convictions in corruption or organised crime cases. Far from being able to make up for these shortcomings, the commission does mention some modest improvements such as the appointment of magistrates or reducing their workload. But as Mr Allen sums up the report on Twitter, these are “a few tiny steps forward [and] some big steps back”.
Romania, on the other hand, seems to have a spring in its step. Compared to the instability in 2012 when a string of protests forced Emil Boc to resign as prime minister, Romania’s current government, led by Victor Ponta, enjoys a two-third parliamentary majority. GDP growth was an enviable 4.1% in the third quarter of last year. Against this “calmer political atmosphere”, Romania has implemented “necessary and long awaited legislative changes” while also improving the cooperation between the judicial institutions and the ministry of justice, says the commission.
Still, “concerns about judicial independence remain and there are many examples of resistance to integrity and anti-corruption measures,” said Marc Gray, spokesperson of the commission. One such example is the “untransparent” amendment of the country’s criminal code in December 2013. The changes, adopted without much debate, aimed to shield elected officials from corruption prosecution while also re-criminalising defamation. Although the country's constitutional court later overturned the legislation, it will still return to parliament for further debate. Reacting to the EU report, Transparency International, an international NGO, said progress in fighting corruption in Romania was "slow and insufficient" and urged the commission to maintain its pressure.
In its 2012 reports the commission was more lenient with Bulgaria giving it 18 months until the next report. (Romania was assessed once more in between.) The tables seem to have turned. “In comparison to Romania, Bulgaria was ahead and the idea was that this would be the last report,” says Tihomir Bezlov of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia.
“Now with this report, the most critical in the seven years, we are back where we started.”