Last week's European Commission progress report on Bulgaria praised the government's reforms of the judiciary and government administration but urged better enforcement of the law. While in most cases EU-standard judicial and administrative structures are in place, there is sometimes not enough administrative capacity to implement change on the ground. The Commission pledged to work with Bulgaria to address the problems and withheld sanctions, while the private sector has shown little sign of concern at the findings.
"The Commission report gives credit to Bulgaria for areas - such as the constitutional amendment and development of legislation - where progress has been made," Michael Humphreys, ambassador and head of the European Commission representation to Bulgaria, told OBG. "But it also clearly identifies areas - such as the fight against corruption and the fight against organised crime - where progress is still insufficient. We pay tribute to the cooperation of the Bulgarian authorities and expect further substantial progress in the coming months," Humphreys added.
Franco Frattini, the Commission vice president and commissioner responsible for freedom, security and justice, praised the "goodwill and determination" of the Bulgarian government and urged "more concrete results".
The report covers six "benchmarks" on which Bulgaria was seen to be lagging behind the rest of the EU when accession was finally confirmed in October last year. In only two is Bulgaria making "insufficient progress", according to the Commission: organised crime and the fight against corruption. Both issues have been in the spotlight internationally of late. In May, Alexander Tasev, the president of Lokomotiv Sofia football club and a prominent businessman, was shot dead in his car, while in April, Rumen Ovcharov, the minister for economy and energy was forced to resign over allegations that he attempted to interfere in criminal investigations.
The first benchmark is "independence and accountability of the judicial system", an area in which there has been some progress since Bulgaria adopted constitutional amendments to increase judicial independence and set up an independent judicial inspectorate. However, the report withheld judgment on the efficacy of these reforms, saying that it was "too early" to draw conclusions.
Benchmark two also covers the judicial system, specifically improving the legal process, transparency and "addressing concerns about the independence and staffing of the Supreme Judicial Council and its inspectorate". Bulgaria has established a new administrative procedure code, but has yet to adopt a new civil procedure code. Again, the report states that it is too early to judge whether the changes have had an effect on the ground.
The third benchmark addresses the professionalism of judicial personnel, where "some progress has been achieved in enhancing accountability, professionalism and efficiency". Implementation of the code of ethical behavior and the enforcement of sanctions for indicted prosecutors are steps forward, as are new training sessions.
Benchmark four is one of two in which serious criticisms have been leveled at the authorities: tackling "high-level corruption". The report criticises the lack of co-ordination between committees tasked with fighting corruption at different levels of the Bulgarian government and public administration, meaning that anti-sleaze drives can lose momentum. Similarly, according to the report, potential whistleblowers may not be well enough protected. While investigative procedures have been improved and a system of verification of asset declarations of senior officials has been implemented, issues remain with implementation of the law. The report concludes that "there is little evidence of rigorous and systematic judicial follow-up on allegations of high-level corruption...overall, progress achieved in the judicial treatment of high-level corruption cases in Bulgaria is still insufficient."
There is considerably better news on the fight against corruption on a local government level. Corruption at border control posts has previously been a major issue for the country. The report praises efforts to tackle the problem through technology, training and increased administrative efficiency, though it notes that investigations into earnings potentially gleaned from corruption "are not yet common practice".
The final benchmark, on organised crime, is arguably the one that causes the most concern with the EU's citizens as a whole, and is an area in which progress has been "insufficient" according to the report. Again, while groundwork has been laid, administrative capacity and enforcement of the law lag behind. It is hard to assess the fight against organised crime due to patchy information and the absence of measurement methodology and because too few contract killings end in convictions and the confiscation of assets.
The report highlights organised crime as a "deep-rooted problem" which will require greater efforts to overcome. In an allusion to the social issues at the root of corruption and a widespread perception that the issue is inevitable, the report concludes, "The structural changes which are needed impact on the society at large and require a step change which goes much beyond the mere fulfilment of the benchmarks."
Hugo Robinson of think tank Open Europe, told OBG, "The EU Commission's progress report on Bulgaria will not make comfortable reading. Ironically, with the objective of EU membership having been achieved, the incentive for making painful changes is blunted, meaning the pace of reform in new member states often slows down after EU accession. This appears to be happening in Bulgaria."
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso described the report as a "reality check", but added that the Commission was not proposing the activation of so-called "safeguard clauses", which would reduce EU funding to Bulgaria. He said that the Commission would continue to work with Bulgaria "in partnership" and continue to report on a regular basis.