{"title": "Can newcomers beat judicial migraines?","content": "
EuropeanVoice.comAchieving reforms in justice and home affairs was a persistent problem for Bulgaria and Romania during accession talks. European Commission reports over the years have highlighted problems with judicial independence, trial processes, corruption and implementation of laws in the justice system. Last September’s final progress report, which gave the green light for accession, was no different. Progress had been made in vital areas but there was serious catching up to do in others, the report said.Problems for Bulgaria lay with indictments and convictions in corruption and organised crime cases, inserting an amendment to the constitution on the independence of the judiciary and the management of the courts and legal systems.Romania was warned of the need to demonstrate political commitment to fighting corruption, to ensure a more consistent interpretation of the law, resolve incidents of conflict of interest among the judiciary and set up an integrity agency to scrutinise the assets of public figures.The Commission said ‘safeguard clauses’ would be applied to both countries if reports carried by the end of March showed “serious, or imminent risks of serious shortcomings”.This would take the form of halting the transposition of judgements from the European Court of Justice to the two countries. It would also mean enforcement of judgements made in Bulgaria and Romania courts in civil and criminal cases or for arrest warrants might not be carried out by other member states.Franco Frattini, commissioner for justice, freedom and security, recently signalled that he was happy with the way the reform process was going: “The two countries have achieved a significant progress, especially in their judicial systems, anti-corruption practices and organised crime.”But with such a short amount of time between the September and March reports can any real progress be made by both states? “I couldn’t say much has been done in such a short amount of time…but the political will to do it is definitely there,” says Dimitar Markov, project co-ordinator of the law programme with the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think-tank.He highlights the constitutional amendment to ensure the independence of the judiciary, which is expected to be signed off early this year, and a new administrative courts system to help deal with the management of the judicial system. Markov also says that improvements have been made in reforming the interior ministry to ensure cases are prosecuted more quickly.Work started by Boris Velchev, the prosecutor general, in reforming the office is also beginning to take effect, he adds.But in the areas of corruption and crime few convictions means there will be less positive results to show Brussels in March. Cases that do come to light – such as that involving Sofia Central Heating Company’s siphoning off of €50 million into private accounts – show a serious problem with corruption still exists. Political corruption is one glaring area where convictions remain rare. “There is a lack of will to prosecute or even investigate political corruption,” says Markov.On organised crime few convictions statistics mask the fact that crime bosses are prosecuted for crimes such as murder or drugs offences, he adds.Romania is facing problems in setting up the integrity agency, according to Sorin Ionita, research director with Romanian Academic Society (SAR), a think-tank based in Bucharest. Many politicians oppose its setting up, with civil society organisations and the Romanian Justice Minister Monica Macovei pushing for it. A major problem is whether police or civil servants should check the accuracy of the declared assets by public figures, says Ionita.Reform of the Superior Council of Magistracy, the governing body for judges, is continuing but while “the direction is good, it’s just slow”, he adds.For Romania the major point of progress to show the EU is the recent opening of the trial against Adrian Nastase, the former prime minister. But Ionita says that the government must maintain pressure on corrupt political figures to prove that immunity exists for no one. He says SAR will publish a ‘black list’ of politicians who are accused of corruption during the election of Romania’s MEPs, on 13 May, just as they did at the last elections.While the governments in Bucharest and Sofia will have their fingers crossed that everything goes well in the progress report next March, some fear a too positive report could mean less pressure to continue with reforms. “It would be bad for us. We use this kind of pressure from Brussels to push for reforms,” says Ionita.“I am concerned that the monitoring should continue, at least for one or two more years to make sure the government keeps up the momentum,” says Markov.But there is agreement that triggering the safeguard clauses would not be in either country’s interests, given it would mean less security for international companies. “Foreign business would prefer to go elsewhere,” says Markov.Author: Judith Crosbie