Europe's errant entrants Financial_Times - 2007/6/12
Running a football club in Bulgaria is a perilous job. In other countries club owners might fret over poor results, but in this corner of Europe owners have the additional concern that they might end up with a bullet in the head.
In the last dozen years no fewer than 15 club owners or backers have died violently. So when Alexander Tasev, president of Lokomotiv Plovdiv, was gunned down on May 18 as he drove through an upmarket Sofia suburb in broad daylight, nobody was much surprised. After all, Mr Tasev held perhaps the most dangerous job in world sport: he was the club’s third president to be shot dead since 2005.
Nobody is much surprised either that the police have failed to arrest anyone in connection with Mr Tasev’s death. As with the murders of his two predecessors and the vast majority of Bulgarian contract killings, there is little expectation that the culprits will end up in jail.
The murky world of Bulgarian professional football – and its widely suspected links to organised crime – might be of little concern outside the Balkans but for the fact that Bulgaria this year became a full member of the European Union.
This is part of the problem. When the EU gave Bulgaria and neighbouring Romania approval to join on January 1, it threw away the most potent incentive for a country to push through political and judicial reforms: the offer of membership. Now both countries are in, Europe is discovering it has little more than empty threats to make new members clean up their act. “We decided to let them in too early,” says Daniel Cohn-Bendit, joint leader of the Green group in the European parliament. “We said Yes before the reforms were really implemented.”
What happens in Bulgaria and Romania has wider significance because it affects whether the EU has the confidence to expand further into the Balkans, a region described by Olli Rehn, Europe’s enlargement commissioner, as a “black hole”.
Europe needs only look back over a bloodstained century or beyond to learn the lessons of turning its back on the Balkans. But many Europeans are tiring of the EU’s expansion; bad news from Bulgaria and Romania does not help.
For Mr Rehn this is a tricky moment. Balkan instability has not gone away and the dispute between the west and Serbia – backed by Russia – over the future status of Kosovo is a powder keg. Bringing Serbia and Kosovo into the European fold is seen by Mr Rehn as a strategic priority. This is why Europe will be watching closely a European Commission report on June 27 on the progress made by Bulgaria and Romania in tackling corruption and organised crime in the six months since they joined the EU.
It will not make comfortable reading. According to EU officials working on the assessments, findings suggest neither country has made sufficient progress in tackling high-level corruption. In spite of a flurry of recent activity in both countries, successful prosecutions of such cases remain rare.
While Bulgaria, a country of 8m, has been seen in Brussels as the back marker in tackling corruption, officials say the situation in Romania, population 22m, is now possibly even worse. “What is at stake with these reports is the credibility of these two countries in meeting the commitments they have made to fight organised crime and corruption,” a Commission official says. Privately, officials admit the credibility of the EU’s enlargement programme is also on the line.
Bulgarian and Romanian accession is seen by some in Brussels as a lesson in how not to enlarge the EU. Because of a political desire to complete the club’s “big bang” expansion into central and eastern Europe, both countries were given a guarantee they could join in 2007 or by 2008 at the very latest, even if they were not fully ready.
No other candidate country is likely to be given such a blank cheque in future, according to officials close to Mr Rehn. “In future we might give them a target entry date – say 2014 – but no guarantees,” says one.
Both countries joined the EU under the strictest ever terms. Bulgaria was given six “red flags” and Romania four, relating mainly to the fight against corruption and, in Sofia’s case, organised crime. A monitoring mechanism was set up to ensure “benchmarks” for addressing these problems were achieved, with the threat of sanctions if they failed.
The monitoring has not run smoothly. Britain, France, the Netherlands and Sweden have claimed the Commission was not taking the work seriously and alleged that Franco Frattini, the EU justice commissioner, had grown too close to the governments he was supposed to be scrutinising, including going on a skiing trip with Rumen Petkov, the Bulgarian interior minister. Mr Frattini denies the allegations and says his trip was a working visit.
Commission officials insist Brussels will produce a rigorous report. They expect it to conclude that while progress has been made in both countries in some areas, corruption and organised crime benchmarks have not been met. In spite of that, Commission insiders do not expect sanctions to be applied immediately and say both countries will be given until December to step up their efforts. Some in Brussels suspect sanctions will never be imposed.
The EU is discovering that the penalties for new members that fail to meet the club’s rules are toothless. The only remedy available is for the EU to refuse to recognise the court judgments of Bulgaria and Romania – in effect declaring that their legal systems cannot be trusted.
“The problem is that the innocent would get hurt,” says a senior Commission lawyer. Divorces obtained in Sofia might no longer be recognised elsewhere in Europe; foreign companies operating in the two countries could run into serious legal problems. “We are seeing if there is anything we can do that protects innocent parties but it is not easy,” says the lawyer. Cutting EU farm and regional subsidy payments to avoid potential fraud is an alternative but one that is legally “tenuous”.
Bulgaria at least is showing signs of improvement. On June 2 Rumen Ovcharov, the powerful economy and energy minister, resigned, three weeks after being sent on leave amid allegations that he had obstructed investigations in a corruption case. Georgi Petkanov, the justice minister, also quit in the face of intensifying criticism of the slow pace of reforms.
“I think we have all reasons to expect a positive report from the European Commission based on the efforts we had made and the ones that we will make,” Sergey Stanishev, Bulgarian prime minister, said this month.
But the belated crackdown has triggered a crisis in the faction-ridden ruling Socialist party, calling into question whether it will be followed through. No high-level convictions for corruption have ever taken place. “We’ve seen more activity by prosecutors and law enforcement agencies but we haven’t seen a major criminal put in jail,” says Ognian Shentov, head of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, in Sofia. A report by the centre says that while low-level corruption has declined, corruption in public procurement deals amounted to losses of ˆ600m ($801m, £406m) in 2006 – equivalent to two years of expected transfers from the EU.
Contract killings in Bulgaria have fallen but several mayors and town hall officials have become recent targets, suggesting that organised crime networks have penetrated local government, a “new development” according to Daniel Smilov of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.
Meanwhile Brussels has watched in dismay as Romania, which had been seen as making progress against corruption in the run-up to accession, has descended into political turmoil and feuding between Calin Tariceanu, prime minister, and Traian Basescu, president. Monica Macovei, a human rights activist put in charge of the fight against graft before Romania’s accession, was kicked out by Mr Tariceanu.
Legislation to clean up public life started to stall in parliament the moment Romania was approved for 2007 entry to the EU. “Reforms aren’t on the public agenda any more,” says Laura Radulescu of Pro Democracy, a reformist lobby.
Several business people claim that corruption has surged. Daniel Morar, the chief anti-corruption prosecutor, told the Financial Times in January that high-level corruption was just as prevalent under Mr Tariceanu as it was under Adrian Nastase, the former prime minister under investigation for corruption himself.
Brussels suspects some of these high-level Romanian investigations to be politically motivated. A new National Integrity Agency was de-fanged in parliament and is seen as a farce by Commission officials and anti-corruption groups.
Mr Tariceanu paints a different picture, portraying Romania as a European success story in the last two years after “a successful EU entry and economic progress”.
Untamed corruption and crime have marred what might have been a European good news story, however, and the immediate victims are the people of Bulgaria and Romania themselves. Italy’s south is testament to the long-term harm caused by ingrained graft and gangsterism: while European funds helped to transform countries such as Spain and Ireland, in Italy they also helped to put more Mercedes limousines with darkened windows on to the streets of Palermo.
But the wider lesson of the experience with Bulgaria and Romania is that potential new members in the Balkans and (possibly, eventually) Turkey will be expected to do a lot more work up-front. No longer will countries be given a green light for membership on a promise to carry out reforms later.
That seems certain to slow the timetable for membership, starting with Croatia, a country also grappling with corruption, which hopes to join by 2010. Some EU members, such as the Netherlands, want membership rules written into the bloc’s new treaty at a summit next week, as a sign that the Union will become more rigorous.
Experience of the latest two accessions might also fan opposition to future enlargement into Europe’s dangerous backyard, to Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and an independent Kosovo. “There is a danger of violence and instability breaking out in Kosovo and uncertainty about the future of Serbia politically,” says Ron Asmus, of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. “If you add to that the problems in Romania and Bulgaria, the net effect is to raise question marks about the future of the enlargement process.”
He says the countries of the western Balkans, at this perilous moment, need reassurance that they have a European future. “They need a stronger signal that they can come in.” Instead the signal they are getting from some European capitals is that when it comes to EU enlargement, enough is enough.
Author: George Parker