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European Commission praises Bulgarian judicial reform, criticises Romanian backsliding

European Commission EU flags in Brussels

The European Commission has welcomed Bulgaria’s continued progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), used by the Commission since 2007 to assess Bulgaria and Romania in the areas of judicial reform, the fight against corruption, and – in the case of Bulgaria – organised crime.

In its latest progress report the Commission notes that Bulgaria has worked consistently on the implementation of recommendations made in November 2018, and that it has seen consolidation of the legal and institutional framework put in place over previous years.

“The progress made by Bulgaria under the CVM is sufficient to meet Bulgaria’s commitments made at the time of its accession to the EU,” reads the report, which adds: “Bulgaria will need to continue working consistently on translating the commitments reflected in this report into concrete legislation and on continued implementation. Bulgaria will need to monitor the continued implementation of the reform with a newly-established post-monitoring council, and that will feed into the future dialogue with the Commission in the framework of the comprehensive rule of law mechanism. Both the internal post-monitoring and the EU-wide mechanism should support sustainability and irreversibility of reforms, even after an end of the CVM for Bulgaria.”

Before taking a final decision of whether to remove the CVM for Bulgaria, the Commission will take into account the observations of the European Council, as well as of the European Parliament.

For Romania, however, the report is scathing in its criticism of the country’s government, which it claims has backtracked from the progress made in previous years.

“This evolution is a source of great concern,” the report reads. “The key institutions of Romania need to collectively demonstrate a strong commitment to judicial independence and the fight against corruption, and to ensure the effectiveness of national safeguards and checks and balances.”

The report heavily criticises the so-called Special Unit for the Investigation of Crimes Committed by Magistrates (SPIIJ), set up in 2018 to investigate alleged offences carried out by prosecutors and magistrates. The highly contentious unit exists outside of Romania’s normal legal structures and operates under the direct control of the minister of justice. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has consistently called on Romania to disband the unit.

“Concerns expressed at the establishment of the SPIIJ have been proved justified,” states the European Commission’s report.

The SPIIJ has been accused by its critics of being heavily politicised. One of its first targets was the country’s former anti-corruption chief, Laura Codruța Kövesi, who has since been appointed as the EU’s first chief-prosecutor. At one stage, the unit placed a travel ban on Ms Kövesi, leading her to miss a hearing at the European Parliament.

Romania’s government was defeated in a no-confidence vote on October 10 but remains in office with limited powers until a new executive is installed. On October 15, Ludovic Orban, the leader of the opposition Liberal party (PNL), was asked to form a new government but is not yet believed to have secured enough parliamentary support.

One potential partner, ALDE – which until August was part of the ruling coalition – has said that the SPIIJ must remain, while another, the Save Romania Union (USR) has demanded it be disbanded in accordance with EU and Council of Europe requests.