The European Commission, the European Union's executive body, has told Romania and Bulgaria that they must step up the fight against corruption and speed up reforms if they want to join the union, as scheduled, in 2007. The EU wants the two Balkan candidates for membership to strengthen the rule of law and improve public administration.
The commission's annual progress report on the suitability of Romania and Bulgaria as potential EU members acknowledges that the two countries have made significant progress in meeting EU standards. But the report says the jury is still out on whether they can join on time.
The commission's main concern is that Romania and Bulgaria are doing too little to fight corruption and improve their judicial institutions. One top legislator in the European Parliament, German conservative Elmar Brok, used football terminology to describe the report as a "yellow card" for the two countries.
The commission says Romania, which was believed to be lagging Bulgaria in adapting its institutions to EU standards, has now caught up with its neighbor. But Romanian officials, like justice minister Monica Macovei, acknowledge that their country still has a long way to go to bring corruption under control.
"The European Commission still awaits, as we all do, as I do, concrete results in the fight against corruption, I mean concrete results in having indictments and convictions," she said.
The commission's report, issued in the French city of Strasbourg, where the European Parliament is meeting, says Romania and Bulgaria must also fight human trafficking and counterfeiting and that they must improve veterinary standards and protection of intellectual property.
Charles Tannock, a British conservative member of the European Parliament, says Romania is well aware that it needs to get rid of high-level corruption and has recently declared graft a crime against the national interest.
"It's been elevated to the highest level of criminal offense," he said. "So, the government is determined to stamp out, root it out completely from their system. Obviously, that is going to be a major challenge. But I'm convinced they are still on track and that they will eventually be able to join on the first of January 2007."
The European Commission says it will decide early next year whether to recommend that the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the union be delayed until 2008. It says that, unless both countries deal forcefully with graft and improve their judicial standards, they will not be able to join the 25-member bloc on schedule.