UTRECHT – It are the two boys who were granted access to the party as long as they promised to behave themselves. However, almost five years after their accession into the EU and under the watchful eye of the chaperoning Union, Romania and Bulgaria demonstrate that nasty old habits sometimes die hard.
By Tim Hersevoort and Agatha Akhabue.
Last summer, as the fifth annual progress reports for Bulgaria and Romania were presented by the European Commission, the outcome was probably not surprising to anyone. Although the Commission recognized that both Bulgaria and Romania have made progress in tackling judicial inefficiencies, fraud, corruption and organized crime, it also made again very clear that both countries still haven’t done enough.
The report was almost a carbon copy of the four previous ones, which keep track of the progress that the two newest member states make on the earlier mentioned criteria. And this is probably yet another disillusion for the other 25 member states, which granted Romania and Bulgaria access to the Union on the condition that they would work hard on national reforms and implementations of European regulatory
Facts and figures
But the two countries seem to have a hard time implementing these reforms and regulations. According to Transparency International, an international organization which monitors corruption, Romania and Bulgaria in 2010 ranked as the most corrupt member states after Greece. Furthermore, according to the American media company Bloomberg, many important Bulgarians who are arrested in the fight against crime and corruption eventually walk free. “In the past two years, Bulgarian police arrested ministers on corruption charges and criminal groups involved in kidnappings, smuggling and racketeering, which didn’t result in convictions.”
The stick or the carrot
So why are these countries having such a hard time cracking down on corruption and crime? According to William Underhill, special correspondent for the American magazine Newsweek, one of the reasons might be that after the accession to the European Union, a sort of ‘reform fatigue’ kicks in. As het states in the magazine: “And after[accession, TH]? The incentive to push through reforms diminishes (…) and states have little appetite for further confrontation.”
Indeed, EU commissioner for home affairs, Cecila Malmström, also seems to recognize this as she lashed out to politicians during a press conference in June regarding the Commissions first ever proposal to address corruption at EU level. “While there are quite sophisticated legal frameworks at international and European level, we have seen that implementation among EU member states is very uneven. It is clear to me that there is not enough determination amongst politicians and decision-makers to fight this crime,” she said.
However, according to, Mr. Underhill, the Commission itself also has few means to impel nations to reform. “With the carrot of membership gone, there are few sticks to force wayward nations to toe the line,” he said.
The stick, so it seems
But due to recent and coming events, it seems that the stick has once again become a realistic option. This was most visible when Bulgaria and Romania were denied access into the travel-free Schengen-zone just last month. The Netherlands and Finland blocked the accession of the two countries, because they feel too little is done by them to stop corruption. Furthermore, The Hague and Helsinki feel that Romania and Bulgaria are not able to properly protect their borders.
But, the European Commission and Parliament believe they are, and see no reason to stop them from accessing the Schengen-agreement.
“The Dutch immigration minister Gerd Leers is using Schengen as an excuse to tell Romania and Bulgaria that they have not done well enough on the fight of corruption,” says Jaap de Zwaan, professor in European Law at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
According to him, the two eastern countries are indeed able to protect their borders. “But the Dutch are using Schengen as a means of forcing Romania and Bulgaria to improve their Rule of Law.”
But it’s not only Schengen which can now be used to pressurize the two countries. They are also bound to receive 32 billion (Romania) and 11 billion (Bulgaria) euros in aid throughout 2013. According to The New York Times, “the final findings [of the report, TH] could have an effect on the level of aid sent to the two countries”.
Furthermore, it is also becoming apparent that ten western EU-countries including Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, France and the UK, will keep their labor markets closed for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania until 2014, the maximum period they are allowed to do so.
Sofia News Agency Novinite said in April: “The restrictions for free movement of laborers from Bulgaria and Romania are supposed to expire on January 1, 2012, but the other EU countries can ask for a two-year extension if they believe that their labor market is threatened. We are going to wait till the end of 2013. Germany and we are not the only ones. Ten EU countries want to do that,” Austrian Labor Minister Hundstorfer said Saturday on Austrian Radio Ö1 as cited by BGNES.” This can also be interpreted as a way of pressurizing Romania and Bulgaria into reforms.
Almost five years after the accession the EU family does not seem satisfied with the progress of the two newest member states. Having let Romania and Bulgaria access the Union on strict conditions, they are disappointed in them and now seemingly want to pressurize them to stop the widespread corruption, fraud and organized crime.
If that tactic will prove to be the right one, only time will tell. Because as The Economist already summed up in 2008, this might also have dubious consequences. “Yet though Brussels is disappointed and even angry about the two countries’ performance since joining the club in January 2007, Eurocrats are not sure what to do. Sharp criticism and tough sanctions might merely demoralize those who are trying to make things better, as well as undermining the membership hopes of other Balkan countries. Despite everything, few believe that any of the new members would be better off out than in.”
So though the relationship between the old member states and Romania and Bulgaria might be a tricky one, despite all of trials and tribulations, it is one to last.