EU praises Romania on reform but criticizes rampant graft

BUCHAREST/BRUSSELS – A keenly awaited European Union report will reaffirm the aim of Romania joining the bloc in 2007 despite concern over media freedom and graft in the poor Balkan country, officials said yesterday. But the report by the European Commission, the EU executive, will be critical and leave the door open to delaying Romania’s entry by one year if Bucharest falls behind the agreed schedule of overhauling its often corrupt economy and weak administration. EU criticisms were backed up by an opinion poll showing that 55 percent of Romanians think corruption in the Balkan country has worsened over the past year. «We look forward to this report including a recommendation… that entry negotiations should be concluded this year, the accession treaty signed next year and that we join the EU in 2007,» Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told Reuters. Geoana, who is the ruling Socialists’ candidate for prime minister after Nov. 28 general elections, vowed to fight graft, strengthen the country’s weak administration and courts and pursue responsible fiscal policies. «We want to join the EU in 2007 and I would like to be the guarantor that this will happen,» he said during a trip to Brussels, accompanying Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Nastase visited Brussels in a last-ditch effort to minimize the criticism in the report, the exact wording of which could still be changed before publication tomorrow. The Commission paper on Romania’s progress toward joining the 25-member bloc will praise the country for stabilizing the economy – cutting inflation and boosting growth – while expressing concern over news media rights and corruption. «I do not hide that we have problems with corruption… I commit myself to strengthening our administration as we need public service that is motivated and less corruptible,» said Geoana, a 56-year-old former ambassador to Washington. He said he was confident Romania would finally receive the «functioning market economy» tag, a key economic criterion for membership, though the report will fall short of declaring the country fit to compete in the EU market. Criticism The report will criticize the country for its poor human rights record, mainly problems of press freedom. «The situation in the media sector will be noted in the report,» another Commission official said. About 20 journalists, mostly investigating corruption cases, have been physically attacked in Romania in the last 18 months but no culprits have been brought to justice. Rated by the watchdog Transparency International as one of the most corrupt ex-communist countries, Romania has been criticized by the EU for failing to tackle endemic graft almost 15 years after the 1989 collapse of communism. An opinion poll released yesterday by a think tank showed that 55 percent of Romanians believe corruption has worsened over the past year, 28 percent think it is unchanged and just 9 percent that it has decreased. The new political and business elite flaunts its wealth, driving luxury cars and building mansions while about 30 percent of people live in poverty, according to World Bank data.