Hopeful nations must tackle crime to join Europe

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The Independent Online

Tales of drug smuggling, money laundering, contract killings and the trafficking of newborn babies have put hurdles in the way of Bulgaria's entry to the European Union next year.

A report from the European Commission yesterday refused to give Bulgaria, and its neighbour Romania, its blessing to enter the EU, promising a reassessment in October of the two countries' readiness for entry in January.

While Romania is judged to have made significant progress, a number of technical problems affecting the handling of EU subsidies are hampering its entry to the bloc.

But as far as Bulgaria is concerned, the report gave Sofia six "red flags" requiring urgent action: including the prosecution of organised crime gangs, fighting fraud and corruption and money-laundering and the strengthening of financial controls.

Yesterday's report painted an alarming picture of corruption, lack of financial control, criminality and neglect of the most vulnerable members of society. It identified Bulgaria as one of Europe's centres of human trafficking, noting: "An increasing problem is the trafficking of newborn babies involving pregnant women giving birth abroad."

Bulgaria's gang and Mafia-related violence remains a massive problem. An estimated 173 contract killings are thought to have taken place since 1992, yet none of the murderers has so far been convicted.

"The frequent contract killings of people linked to organised crime groups seldom give rise to successful investigations and prosecutions and continue to represent a challenge to the rule of law in the country," the document says.

Meanwhile the success rate in prosecutions for money laundering, counterfeiting, human trafficking, prostitution and drug smuggling "is still very low".

Corruption remains "a serious challenge" in the justice system, where there is a need for clearer guarantees of the judiciary's independence. Law enforcement bodies such as the Customs Agency are also extremely vulnerable to corruption and the problem has spread to other areas of society including health and education.

The document argues: "Indictments, prosecution, trials, convictions and dissuasive sentences remain rare in the fight against high-level corruption. Bulgaria needs to demonstrate clear evidence of results." Among the litany of failings is Bulgaria's deteriorating control over the distribution of EU funds, which casts doubt on its ability to administer millions of euros of payments.

Although there were criticisms of Romania's fight against corruption, its four failings were more technical, focusing on the absence of as EU-compatible computer systems for tax collection, food hygiene standards and a failure to set up agencies to administer EU subsidies.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, said: "The possibility of being ready in 2007 is do-able, but it is for the two countries to deliver."

Despite the warnings, the European Commission has a weak hand because EU heads of government have agreed in principle to admit the two member states, with the proviso that their entry could be delayed until 2008. To push back Bulgaria's entry date a year would require the unanimous agreement of EU leaders. In those circumstances there would be little incentive for Bulgaria to continue to reform, knowing that its arrival date in the EU was fixed.

The most likely option is the admission of both countries next January with special conditions and the threat of funds being withheld if payment agencies are not in place. Olli Rehn, EU commissioner for enlargement, warned that European law "will require a suspension of payments in case of serious problems".

A special monitoring system could also be put in place in the first three years after they join if efforts to tackle corruption and reform the judiciary do not yield results.

The pride of Romania...

* Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is based on Vlad Dracul, a 15th-century Romanian prince who, folklore has it, lived in Bran Castle, a fairy-tale fortress in the heart of Transylvania. Known to Romanians as "Vlad the Impaler," the real Dracula was more patriotic hero than blood-sucking vampire

* The Danube Delta in eastern Romania has hundreds of threatened species and is one of the world's most valuable sites

* Romania was ruled by brutal Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu from 1974 until 1989, when he was executed

* Nadia Comaneci is one of Romania's sporting greats. In 1976, she was the first gymnast to get a perfect score of 10

* Forget football, Romania's national sport is a baseball-like game called oina, invented centuries ago

...and Bulgaria

* Bulgarians are widely credited with discovering the joys of yoghurt before anyone else. In the 1900s, a Russian biologist suggested that its heavy consumption was responsible for the unusually long lifespans of the country's peasants. It is still regarded as a staple food

* Bulgaria is expected to see Europe's sharpest population fall. By 2050 there will be a 40 per cent decrease

* The first electronic "computer" was unveiled in 1939 by a Bulgarian inventor, John Atanasoff

* The Cyrillic alphabet, used in Slavic languages, was developed in north-eastern Bulgaria in the 10th century

* It is believed Bulgarian agents used a poison-tipped umbrella to kill the dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1979