When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption - and in the case of Bulgaria, the fight against organised crime. These weaknesses carried the risk that Bulgaria and Romania would not be able to correctly apply Community law and Bulgarians would not be able to fully enjoy their rights as EU citizens.
A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism was set up to assist both countries. The latest annual reports on Bulgaria and Romania were prepared by the EU executive's secretariat general under the authority of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, and published this summer in agreement with Vice-President Jacques Barrot (EurActiv 24/07/08). The next such report is to be published in February 2009.
Stanishev and Barroso met at short notice after an appointment had been agreed upon during last week's EU summit, diplomatic sources say.
The climate between the Bulgaria and the Commission worsened recently after Brussels withheld 220 million euro of pre-accession funding over accusations of misuse (EurActiv 26/11/08). In return, top Bulgarian officials accused the EU executive of double standards. The Commission rejected the allegations.
Barroso reiterated the Commission's insistence that Bulgaria must deliver "concrete and convincing results" on judiciary reform in the context of fighting high-level corruption and organised crime. The latest report on Bulgaria from the EU executive saw little progress, declaring that verification would remain "a long-haul exercise" (EurActiv 24/07/08).
"The reform process must speed up rather than slow down in Bulgaria. We need a consensus in Bulgaria that treats the fight against high-level corruption and organised crime as issues of national importance, and I would like to underline this," Barroso said.
Bulgaria is under pressure to meet a 22 December deadline for submitting information to the Commission regarding efforts to address outstanding issues. The information will be fed into a monitoring report, expected to be published by the EU executive in February. But as the main demand from Brussels is for effective sentences to be applied against high profile criminals, Bulgaria has little to report, the press in Sofia writes.
In what appears to be a novelty, Barroso hinted that politicians in Bulgaria were trying to use the EU funds issue for political purposes.
"We will not allow people to play politics with EU funds," Barroso said.
Commission spokesperson Mark Gray declined to elaborate upon whether Barroso was referring to a coalition partner in the ruling government, the mostly ethnic Turkish Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which is widely suspected of redistributing EU funds and projects in party circles.
After the meeting, Stanishev told journalists that he did not take Barroso's remarks "personally", hinting that the Commission was not focusing on his BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party). But he "would not say" who was playing political games with EU money in Bulgaria.
Neverthless, Stanishev hinted that even coalition parties could be suspected of playing such games.
"Nobody, from any party, be they in government or opposition, should even imagine misusing EU funds," he said. Since 2005, Bulgaria has been governed by a tripartite coalition between the BSP, the DPS and the National Movement Simeon the Second (NDSV). Elections are due in mid-2009.
The daily ' Dnevnik ', EurActiv's partner in Bulgaria, wrote that the Barroso-Stanishev meeting took place at Stanishev's request and had left the Bulgarian prime minister empty-handed. Stanishev was unable to obtain any concessions on the frozen EU funds, the daily writes.
Both sides speak different languages, Dnevnik furter writes: Barroso says that the management of EU funds, corruption and organised crime continue to be a problem, while Stanishev presents the situation as "significantly improved" over the last six months.
The daily ' Sega ' writes today that Barroso's warning of "politics being played" with EU funds is in fact a response to Stanishev and the Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, who had complained of "double standards" and "politically-motivated decisions" in the Commission's withholding of EU funds.