In order to accommodate these concerns in several member states and in the European Parliament, a new monitoring instrument was installed called the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Each year the European Commission (EC) would report on the progress made and whether or not the benchmarks that were set for both countries were satisfactorily fulfilled. The hope then was that these public assessments would push both countries to comply with EU standards as soon as possible.
Part of the familiar carrot and stick approach was the right of the EU to use so-called “special safeguards” in case there was no or insufficient progress. The EU, for instance, had the right to freeze payments of EU funds, a potential financial punishment that, everybody hoped, would have a positive effect on Bucharest and Sofia.
In the first couple of years, improvements were slow and partial and because the administrative capacity to absorb the substantial EU funds was sometimes lacking, Brussels decided on a few occasions to use its power to cut financing.
However, as was agreed in the accession treaties, after three years the option to use safeguard measures expired. The EC kept producing reports on both countries in 2010 and 2011 because grave problems still existed. The problem was that the easiest and clearest instrument to indicate the lack of progress, to stop transferring money, was no longer available.
Last week, five years after Romania and Bulgaria became EU members, the EC published a new report on both countries. Some months ago, many expected these evaluations to be the last ones, also because the two Balkan countries were fed up with their exceptional position and tired of being lectured by the EC about their flaws all the time.
One thing is clear after last week: These were not the last reports. The one on Bulgaria underlined the still extremely problematic role of Bulgarian organized crime, both domestically and in the rest of Europe, and the inadequate way of dealing with that phenomenon by the Bulgarian authorities. The next assessment will be at the end of 2013.
The report on Romania was even tougher. That was due to a large extent to some recent, very controversial moves by Victor Ponta, Romania’s prime minister. In his bid to unseat the center-right President Traian Basescu, the center-left Ponta, according to the spot-on summary of the European Voice, “replaced the speakers of both houses of parliament, sacked the ombudsman, changed the rules for the referendum on Basescu’s removal, curbed the powers of the constitutional court and grabbed control over the publication of legal acts.” The EC’s deep concern about Ponta’s power grab was expressed in the report by using harsh phrases about the Romanian government such as “raises serious doubts about the commitment to the respect of rule of law or the understanding of the meaning of the rule of law in a pluralist democratic system” and “indications of manipulations and threats which affect institutions, members of the judiciary and eventually have a serious impact on society as a whole.” The message is clear: This can’t go on like this. The next monitoring report on Romania is already scheduled for the end of this year.
Ponta reacted immediately by promising that his government will do everything to address the EU’s concerns. The fundamental problem for the EU is: What if he does not?
In theory, EU institutions could trigger Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which can be used in the event of a “serious and persistent breach” of freedom, democracy, human rights and other EU values. One could debate whether Romania has reached that stage yet. On top of that, it remains to be seen whether other EU member states would be willing to use this “nuclear option” against one of their colleagues. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have gotten have gotten away with similar abuses of power. So why should Victor Ponta worry this time?
The row about Romania’s shaky road to full democracy has again exposed one of the structural weaknesses of the EU. While the union can be very tough on candidate states like Turkey when core European values at are stake, the EU still has not found an effective way of dealing with similar violations when they are perpetrated by some of its own members.