Bulgaria must do more to crack down on organized crime and reform its corrupt judiciary, says EU

SOFIA – Bulgaria needs to show progress in fighting organized crime and corruption and to reform its slow and inefficient judiciary to join the European Union in 2007, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said yesterday. The Black Sea state has less than four weeks to convince the EU that it is ready to join next year and does not need to take the one-year delay option listed in its accession treaty. Rehn said preliminary findings show Bulgaria has made serious progress in technical preparation but still has to do more to put criminals and corrupt officials behind bars. «My wish is to see Bulgaria a member of the European Union in January 2007, but my duty as the guardian of the treaties is to ensure that Bulgaria joins when it is ready,» Rehn told reporters. «Our essential objective… is that the reforms’ progress will continue fully until accession and also after accession so that we can ensure the continuity and the irreversibility of the reform process, especially in the area of rule of law,» he said. Brussels has rapped Bulgaria for doing little to change the climate of impunity in which criminals and corrupt officials operate without fear of prosecution. Although Bulgaria has charged several officials for bribes and abuse of power recently, authorities have failed to convict anyone for around 150 brazen assassinations since 2000 or charge any senior officials for graft. Analysts said Rehn’s comments, coming ahead of the September 26 report on Bulgaria’s and Romania’s progress in entry preparations, supported expectations the EU would admit the two states next year but may impose some type of restrictions on membership. Bulgaria and its bigger northern neighbor Romania missed the first wave of the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004 due to slow reforms. «The European Commission is using these last days to put pressure on the government to carry out reforms. I do not see it as a signal for postponement,» said Gergana Noucheva, a political analyst at the Center for European Policy Studies. «Once the Commission sets the day of accession, it is losing the strongest of its tools to influence the government. So it is using the opportunity to push for changes now,» she said. Rehn said the Commission was actively working on its September 26 report but declined to «jump the gun» and say what the recommendation of the Commission will be.