The European Commission today (20 July) published its ninth monitoring report on law enforcement and the fight against corruption and organised crime in the two EU newcomers.
At first glance, the two reports differ from one another more than ever, with a series of positive assessments on Romania's progress and strong criticism of Bulgaria's record.
Speaking to the Brussels press, Commission spokesperson Mark Gray explained that so far the EU executive had been heralding a process of preparation and adoption of laws, while from now on it would demand their implementation and delivery.
He said it was "particularly important" for the judiciaries in both EU newcomers to show full commitment to the reform process.
Bulgaria: Fundamental reform needed
For Bulgaria, Gray pointed to what he called "important challenges". Over the last year, a number of acquittals in high-level corruption, fraud and organised crime cases have exposed serious deficiencies in Bulgaria's judicial practice, he said.
These had not been properly analysed by the judiciary leadership, the Supreme Court, the Judiciary Council, the General Prosecutor and the president of the Supreme Court of Cassation, he stated.
Gray added that the quality and transparency of several important appointments to the judiciary system had been questioned, leading to "unprecedented public protests". Allegations of corruption within the judiciary are not pursued in a systematic manner, he continued.
Several examples of such appointments can be found in the Bulgarian press, but the most striking one involved Vladimira Yaneva, a person close to Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Tzvetan Tzvetanov whom the latter attempted to get appointed as chief of the Sofia court.
The push prompted massive protests from the judiciary and accusations that "nepotism prevails over professionalism".
"As a matter of national priority, Bulgaria should urgently pursue its judicial reform strategy and take further steps toward a fundamental reform of the judiciary system," Gray said.
On 8 July, for the first time a law put forward by the ruling GERB party did not pass through parliament, as 47 MPs from the ruling party failed to turn up for the vote.
Gray also insisted that Bulgaria should adopt legislation permitting the confiscation of property gained as a result of alleged unlawful activity.
Romania 'responds swiftly'
As for Romania, Gray spoke of "significant steps" taken over the last year to improve the efficiency of judicial procedures and put in place four new codes, which he called "the foundation for a modern judicial process".
He commended Bucharest for "responding swiftly" on recommendations concerning its National Integrity Agency (ANI), which he said had kicked off its track record of investigations.
Indeed, under EU pressure, Romania's parliament passed last autumn a law on the organisation and functioning of ANI, an anti-graft agency, which was recently stripped of its powers by the country's constitutional court.
At the same time, the national anti-corruption body, the DNA, has shown a "continuously convincing track record" of investigations of high-level corruption cases.
On the negative side, he primarily highlighted two issues: several high-level corruption cases having been delayed in court for several years, which are now at risk of exceeding the statute of limitations. The fight against corruption should be coordinated with the help of a new robust anti-corruption strategy, he insisted.
He also stressed that Brussels wanted to see concrete results from the seizure of the proceeds of crime.
Rendez-vous next year
But the major novelty of the reports was what journalists dubbed a "rendez-vous clause," contained in both reports, which says that in the summer of 2012, five years after the start of the monitoring process, the Commission should make a general assessment of each country's progress and make "appropriate proposals in light of this assessment".
Asked if this meant that one of the countries could see its monitoring by the Commission lifted next year while the other remained under scrutiny, Gray replied that "all options" were possible.
Asked whether the political background in Bulgaria had not put the Commission under massive pressure in drafting the report, Gray basically said that countries would not be doing their job if they did not put pressure on the EU executive. But he admitted following further questioning that the Commission had hidden a critical passage regarding "sponsorships" of the Bulgarian police within a "technical update" that fewer people had read.
In fact, the Bulgarian press recently revealed that the Bulgarian police was receiving 'sponsorship money' from various private sources, many of whom were considered close to the country's underground.
Diplomats told EurActiv that the rendez-vous text had indeed put "maximum pressure" on both countries and made up for their lack of progress, which had exasperated not only the Commission's services, but several older member states. "Peer pressure" was expected to produce results, as in a scenario whereby Romania would see its monitoring lifted, the political fallout for Bulgaria would be "enormous".
In fact, Bulgaria's opposition is preparing to vote on a no-confidence motion against the minority centre-right government, slamming Prime Minister Boyko Borisov for failing to join the EU's Schengen passport-free zone and for what it describes as a "law enforcement fiasco".