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EU criticism douses Romania, Bulgaria Schengen hopes

(BRUSSELS) - Romanian and Bulgarian hopes of rapidly joining the Schengen visa-free travel zone were dealt a new blow Wednesday as an EU report urged them to take more action against corruption and organised crime.

The Netherlands has made improvements in those two areas key conditions to lifting its veto on European Union members Bulgaria and Romania joining the border-free area.

"Progress is visible in both countries, especially in Romania. It is a step forward but more needs to be done," said Dutch Europe Minister Ben Knapen.

"The Netherlands seeks two consecutive positive reports which indicate sustainable and irreversible progress to combat corruption and organised crime," he added.

The Dutch government will wait until the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, issues its full progress report in July to determine whether the two countries fulfilled the requirements.

The decision to add new countries to the 25-nation Schengen area, home to 400 million Europeans who can cross borders without a passport, rests in the hands of member states which each have veto power.

The report issued Wednesday by the European Commission praised Romania for progress but was harsher on Bulgaria, calling on Sofia to take "stronger action in a number of areas."

The report set six benchmarks for Bulgaria, including the need to continue judicial reforms, conduct non-partisan investigations into allegations of high-level corruption and implement a strategy against organised crime.

It also called for "further measures to prevent and fight corruption, in particular at the borders and within local government."

The Commission saw the track record of investigations and trials of crimes such as high-level corruption, fraud and organised crime as "failing to demonstrate convincing results."

Bulgaria's government reacted by pledging urgent measures to address remaining criticism of its slow judicial and police sector reforms.

Visibly unhappy, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov slammed his justice and interior ministers and the "slanderous" Socialist opposition for the unfavourable report.

He urged both judiciary and police to "make more efforts."

"There is no room for panic whatsoever," Justice Minister Diana Kovacheva countered, citing reforms in the pipeline.

"But there is also just less than six months until the next report in July and we must undertake urgent measures on all issues where more progress and further efforts are expected by the Commission," she added.

"The picture is not rosy," Kovacheva added, while urging a recognition that "irreversible reform processes have started in Bulgaria even if more work lies ahead."

Deputy Interior Minister Veselin Vuchkov said his ministry "takes the report for what it is" and will continue with planned reforms to improve investigative police practice in order to achieve more verdicts.

Brussels praised Romania for responding to some important recommendations issued by the Commission, saying Bucharest "accelerated the trial of high-level corruption cases."

"The National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) and the National Integrity Agency (ANI) have continued to carry forward a series of important cases, including with regard to a significant number of senior politicians and officials", the Commission stressed.

However it said it expected "progress concerning integrity and accountability within the judiciary".

"This positive signal should encourage us to go further on the path we took a few years ago" in fighting corruption, Romanian Justice Minister Catalin Predoiu said.

The two countries had hoped to join Schengen as early as last year, but seem certain now to have to wait until after a March 1-2 summit of EU leaders to have their cases properly heard.

Interim Report on Progress under the 
Co-operation and Verification 
Mechanism in Bulgaria
Interim Report on Progress under the 
Co-operation and Verification 
Mechanism in Romania

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