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News 25 Jan 17

Romania, Bulgaria Still Need Monitoring, Commission Says

Latest Cooperation and Verifications Mechanism report says Romania and Bulgaria need further monitoring until they meet all the requirements in terms of justice, corruption and organized crime. 

Ana Maria Touma, Mariya Cheresheva
BIRN
Sofia
The European Commission in Brussels. Photo:Amio Cajander/CC BY-SA 2.0

The European Commission will continue to monitor Romania and Bulgaria in 2017 because they have not made enough progress in terms of justice and the fight against corruption.

A new Cooperation and Verifications Mechanism, CVM, report issued by the European Commission on Wednesday said both countries need to make more progress in order to ensure a functional, independent justice system, a sustainable mechanism to fight corruption and, in Bulgaria’s case, to fight organized crime. 

The CVM will only end when all six benchmarks applying to Bulgaria and all four applying to Romania are met and when the European Commission believes that the objectives can be achieved within a year, the Commission said.

Romania needs to work on the transparency of the judicial process, on an integrity agency to track conflicts of political interest, on professional, non-partisan investigations into high-level corruption and on taking further measures to prevent corruption.

Regarding Bulgaria, the Commission issued 17 specific recommendations, stressing the need for public accountability of the Prosecutor General, for court sentences for top-level corruption as well as for the adoption of an anti-corruption bill which has stalled in parliament.

“The speed of the process will depend on how quickly Bulgaria and Romania will be able to fulfill these recommendations in an irreversible way, and on avoiding negative steps which call into question the progress made so far,” the Commission’s Dutch Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, told a press conference in Brussels.

Tougher fight against corruption urged in Romania:

Bucharest was asked to move forward with reforms in terms of the criminal codes, with parliament taking forward its plans to adopt the amendments presented by the government in 2016 after consultation with the judicial authorities.

“The government and parliament should ensure full transparency and take proper account of consultations with the relevant authorities and stakeholders in decision-making and legislative activity on the Criminal Code and Code for Criminal Procedures, on corruption laws, on integrity laws, on the laws of justice and on the Civil Code and Code for Civil Procedures,” the CVM report said.

The document comes two days after protests took place in Bucharest over a mass pardon decree and over a revision of the penal code to remove abuse of office and influence peddling from the list of crimes.

Under the changes, government decrees would need approval only from the cabinet, without undergoing vetting by parliament or the President, which drew claims from the opposition and civil society that the government was trying to pardon officials and politicians found guilty of graft and abuse in office.

The Commission also said Romania needs an independent system for appointing top prosecutors based on clear and transparent criteria.

Bucharest also needs to adopt a code of conduct for MPs and ministers that includes provisions on politicians not interfering with the judiciary.

Moreover, the Commission stressed that parliament needs clearer criteria on lifting MPs’ immunity, which some politicians are using to avoid prosecution for corruption-related crimes. 

The report also commends the activity of the Anti-Corruption Directorate DNA and the High Court of Cassation and Justice.

It and points out that, overall, Romania is on the right track. 

Romanian officials welcomed the report conclusions as positive. President Klaus Iohannis said he was surprised by how positively the Commission had perceived Romania’s progress.

“This is Romania, always capable of a surprise, sometimes even a pleasant one,” he pointed out in Strasbourg, where he was taking part in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE.

Minister for European Affairs Ana Birchall also said that she was satisfied. “We especially salute the clear message passed through this report on the clear difference between the CVM and the Schengen joining process, in order to scrap any confusion regarding the two processes. We regret that this decision did not come sooner from the European Commission, which could have contributed to avoiding delays in accession [to the Schengen zone], which is important for Romania.”

Work on transparency and organized crime for Bulgaria:

Unveiling the report, Timmermans said Bulgaria had also made important progress in carrying out reforms, especially legislative reform and in judicial matters.

But the Commission also noted: “Over the past ten years, overall progress has not been as fast as hoped for and a number of significant challenges remain to be addressed.

“The new government will need to drive reform forward to secure irreversible results,” the report added.

A year on from the January 2016 report, progress remains limited on the fight against corruption, the Commission pointed out.

The report is particularly critical of the work of the State Prosecutor’s Office, noting “suspicions of undue influence and criticisms of a lack of overall accountability of the prosecution”.

Another institution under fire is the highest self-regulatory body of the judiciary, the Supreme Judicial Council, which has been criticized for insufficient transparency, scandals, internal battles between the members of the body and over suspicions of politicized decisions.

Bulgaria also has to tackle organized crime, which has evolved in the past 10 years, becoming more fragmented, versatile and diversified, developing into legal businesses, as well as becoming less openly violent, the report said.

In the introduction, the European experts also criticized a media environment “often characterised by low independence and ineffective enforcement of journalistic standards, which has a negative influence on public debate on reforms”. 

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