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July 05, 2007, Thursday

Bulgaria and Romania still struggling with corruption and crime

When Bulgaria and Romania became European Union members on Jan. 1, 2007, they both controversially had shortcomings as neither country had totally met all EU requirements.
The European Commission made it clear that there was still much work for both countries to do in a number of areas that were particularly tricky for our Balkan friends. Last week the commission published its first monitoring reports, which summed up the progress they had made over the last six months. Although both countries were told that that they had shown goodwill and determination, the reports clearly underlined that there is still much to do, particularly regarding judicial reform, corruption and the fight against organized crime.

It is quite paradoxical that as candidate countries Turkey and Croatia strive to meet EU standards -- in many different criteria -- their Balkan neighbors are also still endeavoring to meet EU standards. If they do not make sufficient progress in the coming 12 months, the commission may decide to make use of special safeguards which were put in place for the first three years of their membership. Invoking the safeguards could lead to a refusal to recognize court decisions or even cuts in funding from the EU.

Bulgaria seems to have come out worst. Alarming levels of corruption and organized crime continue to plague the country with lawlessness, contract killings and mafia gangs remaining serious problems. There is great concern that in recent scandals involving high-level figures no prosecutions or convictions have taken place. Human trafficking is also a problem with Bulgaria remaining a source country for trafficking in women and children. According to a recent UN report, Bulgaria is one of the top 10 origin countries in the world for the trafficking of people for sexual exploitation. This is hardly something you would expect from an EU member state.

It would also not be advisable to fly with Bulgarian Airlines as their aviation standards are still not up to scratch and EU continues to refuse to recognize safety certificates issued by Bulgarian authorities. Bulgarian Airlines continues to operate with third country status.

Romania is still seriously struggling to make inroads into its corruption problems. Bucharest is currently investigating two former prime ministers and two former ministers over corruption allegations, a process which is being closely monitored by EU officials. The functioning of the judiciary is still not sufficient, with slow implementation of reforms bogging the country down. Although Romania has less of a problem with organized crime, the country nevertheless also suffers with trafficking problems and is primarily a country of origin and transit.

Some people were surprised by the report’s softened tone and criticized the commission for not being tougher. However, making the step to sanctions is a big decision. Sanctions should really only be used in the worst case scenario. Romania and Bulgaria should be allowed more time to crack on as both countries have made progress and need encouragement to continue. Furthermore experience shows that sanctions frequently don’t work. The two laggards now have until June 2008 to set their houses in order. Although the EU needs to keep up the pressure, the countries themselves also need to be dedicated and listen to all segments of society who have advice to give, as well as use “best practice” from other countries that have dealt with similar problems. After all it is the image and reputation of their county at stake. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania should want to be viewed a second-class EU member.

At the same time the EU is preaching to Bulgaria and Romania about corruption it would do well to monitor itself as a whole. According to recent statistics by Transparency International, the leading anticorruption organization, a number of other new EU members, as well as old-timer Greece, also continue to have problems. In Poland, for example, the levels of corruption exceed those of Bulgaria.

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