Thursday, 22 September 2011

Schengen Wars 2

Romania and Bulgaria's Schengen aspirations are being put on hold again, with the Netherlands and Finland opposing the phased introduction of the two countries into the border-free zone due to concerns over their levels of corruption. Before the vote, Romania blocked tulips from being imported across its border. Their accession was blocked earlier this year in January, which also saw inept diplomacy by Romania.

So are the concerns over the levels of corruption in Bulgaria and Romania justified? The Commission helps and monitors the reform and implementation of changes in the justice system required by EU membership through the "Co-operation and Verification Mechanism" (or CVM). The latest reports on Bulgaria (PDF) and Romania (PDF) were delivered in July. Both reports documented progress, but there's still a long way to go.

The Bulgarian report raises concerns over corruption and over accountability of the judiciary (p.3-4):

"Since last summer, a number of acquittals in cases involving high-level corruption, fraud and organised crime have exposed serious deficiencies in judicial practice in Bulgaria. These deficiencies have not been properly analysed or followed up by the leadership of the judiciary, the Supreme Judicial Council, the General Prosecutor and the President of the Supreme Court of Cassation. Although the revised Judicial System Act adopted in December strengthens the judiciary's accountability, the law has not yet been implemented as intended. The quality and transparency of several important appointments within the judiciary since the beginning of this year have been questioned, leading to unprecedented public protests and a debate on possible constitutional amendments. In addition, allegations of corruption within the judiciary are still not pursued in a systematic way as recommended by the Commission.

[...]

Judicial appointments still lack the necessary level of transparency and credibility. An important senior appointment by the Supreme Judicial Council in November 2010 raised concerns as regards the lack of transparency and competitive character. The entry into force of the newly amended provisions of the Judicial Systems Act in
January 2011, has unfortunately not yet improved the situation as regards senior appointments, which have been still carried out under the old rules and lacked real assessment of the professional qualifications, managerial skills and personal integrity of candidates. Furthermore, a recent nomination was followed by allegations of conflict of interest and procedural irregularities in an ongoing trial handled by the successful candidate. As a protest, two members of the Supreme Judicial Council resigned and criticised the appointment decisions as pre-determined. The subsequent mobilisation of professional associations of magistrates and civil society calling for reform of the Supreme Judicial Council sends an important signal of support for judicial reform. Recommendations by civil society to hold public debates and announce the names of candidates at an earlier stage are laudable. The appointment of highly competent and motivated magistrates of unquestionable integrity via transparent procedures, in particular for the new specialised court for organised crime, is indispensable to successfully implement judicial reform.

[...]

Criminal investigations against magistrates are still not systematically launched by the
prosecution upon allegations of corruption. The decision of the Supreme Judicial Council in June to involve a magistrate with a disciplinary record in the recruitment panel for the new specialised criminal court raises serious concerns. Overall, there is a lack of consistent disciplinary practice. These problems remain a major factor undermining public trust in the judiciary."



Policing in the area of organised crime is also an area of concern (p.5):

"In spite of persevering police actions to tackle organised crime, the overall results need to be significantly improved. Although the joint team on organised crime achieved several indictments related to important organised crime-groups and some convictions have been rendered, other important cases have been concluded with acquittals since the Commission's last annual report. In appeal, severe detention sentences have been pronounced but not yet enforced in one emblematic organised crime case. Weaknesses exist in the collection of evidence, the protection of witnesses as well as in investigative strategies, comprehensive financial investigations and the securing of assets. The General Prosecutor should systematically analyse the reasons for acquittals in high level cases, make recommendations for the handling of future cases when shortcomings in the procedure have been identified and appeal the acquittal decisions when it appears that the Courts did not properly assess the evidence provided."


The report notes a lack of "convincing results" regarding corruption, with cases against former ministers and MPs, and cases involving fraud of EU funds ending in acquittal (p.6):

"The analysis of some of these cases by the Commission and independent experts demonstrated serious weaknesses in judicial and investigative practice. These weaknesses mainly concern the collection of evidence, the protection of witnesses and the general lack of investigative strategies, comprehensive financial investigations and securing of assets. Coordination within the prosecution and between the prosecution and the police should be improved. These weaknesses are compounded by an out-dated Penal Code. Court practice is permissive and excessively cautious, overly attentive to procedures at the expense of delivering justice. While the revision of the Penal Code is advancing, immediate corrective measures, such as the use of interpretative rulings by the Supreme Court of Cassation or legislative amendments should be considered, since the new Penal Code cannot be expected to enter into force before late 2013."


The Romanian report shows some significant improvements, as well as highlighting areas that need a lot of progress. I won't quote from the report to the same extent as the Bulgarian one - I'd recommmend reading both to get a fuller picture of the situation in both countries - but I'll quote to summary paragraphes from the start (p.3):

"Since the Commission's last annual report, Romania took significant steps to improve the efficiency of judicial procedures and continued preparations for the entering into force of four new codes which are the foundation for a modern judicial process. In advance of the implementation of the new codes, the Small Reform Law has brought improvements for the celerity of the judicial process. Romania also responded swiftly to the Commission’s recommendation by adopting a new legal framework for the National Integrity Agency. The National Integrity Agency has been operational under this new legal framework and started to re-establish its track record of investigations. Although not part of the CVM benchmarks, the authorities decided to carry out reviews of the judicial system and of public procurement and to make an evaluation of anti-corruption policy. During the same period, the National
Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) showed a continuously convincing track record in the investigation of high-level corruption cases.

Despite this progress since July 2010, consistency and results in a number of areas remain a challenge. Progress in the fight against corruption still needs to be pursued. Several important high-level cases remain delayed in court for several years and have also seen little movement during this period. Urgent action must be taken to accelerate these trials and prevent them being struck down because of reaching statute-barred periods. The fight against corruption should remain a top priority and be coordinated with the help of a new comprehensive and robust anti-corruption strategy. Urgent measures are needed to improve the recovery of the proceeds of crime, the pursuit of money laundering and protection against conflict of interest in the management of public funds. Better results should be demonstrated in the confiscation of unjustified assets and in delivering dissuasive sanctions for incompatibilities."


Though the domestic reasons for blocking Romania and Bulgaria's phased entry into the Schengen Zone may have more to do with political pressure from the far-right, there are real concerns over the handeling of corruption in romania and Bulgaria. It's true that both countries meet the technical requirements for entry, and that adding this judicial and policing requirements is moving the goalposts, but these issues do need to be tackled as obligations of EU membership. While the politicking might be distasteful - and condemned by both the EPP and the S&D groups in the European Parliament - there is truth to the contention that it's harder to get EU Member States to comply with EU conditions once they're in the club.

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