Commission Challenges Bulgaria, Romania on Judicial Reform

While Bulgaria and Romania have chosen to welcome the latest European Commission reports on their judicial reforms and moves to combat corruption, the reports contain much criticisms of the results the two countries achieved in 2017. 
The European Commission building in Brussels. Photo: Axel Kirch / CC BY-SA 4.0

The European Commission’s latest reports on Bulgaria and Romania under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, CVM – which monitors their progress on judicial reform and corruption – contain good and bad news for both countries.

Although the reports, issued on Wednesday, said the two states had made some progress in some areas of their judiciaries, they said more work needs to be done for the monitoring, which exists only in these two EU members states, to end in 2019, when its mandate expires.

Two countries will be assessed again by the end of next year.

Both governments chose to welcome the reports as generally positive in terms of the progress they have made since January 2017, when the Commission issued its last assessments.

“The report is positive, objective and clearly defining the positive trends and achieved results,” Bulgaria’s Ministry of Justice said on Wednesday.

Justice Minister Tudorel Toader also hailed the report on his country. “It … underlines the progress we have made since the last report in January 2017. It stressed a lot of the progress we made,” he told journalists just after the report was published.

However, the Commission also said the overall pace of justice reforms in 2017 had stalled and expressed concern over challenges to judicial independence.

Despite Bulgaria’s diplomatic efforts to put an end to the CVM mechanism, the Commission has made it clear that the country will remain under monitoring at least until 2019.

It recalled its last report on Bulgaria in January 2017, when 17 specific recommendations were issued for the country to fulfill its benchmarks.

According to the Commission, Bulgaria has made progress on some of the recommendations, including the election of a new Supreme Judicial Council earlier in the year and because judicial reform has regained momentum since May, when Boyko Borissov’s third government took power.

However, the EU experts noted that they could not conclude that “any of the benchmarks are satisfactorily fulfilled”.

The Commission has raised concerns over Bulgaria’s “unpredictable legislative decision-making process”.

It recalled that, in July, MPs proposed changes to the Judicial Systems Act without public consultation, some of which, such as a proposed ban on foreign funding for professional associations of magistrates, have been seen as an attack on the independence of the judiciary.

“Bulgaria should ensure the irreversibility and credibility of the judicial reform process by establishing an environment of mutual trust and cooperation between institutions, crucial for the successful implementation of reforms,” the report said.

Better results in fighting corruption and organized crime, and establishing an independent body to tackle top-level graft have also been urged.

The reports also come as Romania’s government is pushing for a justice bill about which the European Commission has expressed concern in recent months.

The report on Romania urges Bucharest to seek the advice of the Venice Commission before starting to debate the bill in parliament.

“The overall reform momentum in the course of 2017 has stalled, slowing down the fulfillment of the remaining recommendations, and with a risk of re-opening issues which the January 2017 report had considered as closed. Challenges to judicial independence are a serious source of concern,” the Commission said.

“We have seen progress in some areas but there is still more work to be done. Romania has met some of our recommendations, but there is not enough progress yet on others.

“I count on the Romanian Government to pursue the necessary reforms, and to avoid backtracking so that we can work together towards the goal of ending the CVM under this Commission’s mandate,” First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in a press release issued by the European Commission.

The Commission said it believed that Romania would be able to fulfill the remaining recommendations with “loyal cooperation between state institutions, a political steer holding firm to past achievements and with respect for judicial independence.”

Romania’s President, Klaus Iohannis, said the report was more worrying than satisfactory.

“It is a serious alarm signal that the government coalition should take into account. If the actions of the government and the Parliament of Romania concerning the justice bill continue, Romania will take steps backwards in terms of the justice system and the fight against corruption,” Iohannis said in a statement.