There is a simple rule of political life, all life indeed. It is that you can ask anything of someone who wants to join your club so long as they're still trying to gain entry. Once they've joined you lose all leverage short of the nuclear option of immediate expulsion. The European Commission is not going to do that with Bulgaria or Romania. But they're going to be in real difficulties forcing any change of behaviour merely by withholding grants.
It's their own fault – or rather the fault of the rush to admit new members in the first place. Eager to consolidate the gains of the collapse of the Soviet Union, EU leaders and commission officials simply turned a blind eye to the rampant corruption and almost uncontrolled crime that marked Bulgaria and Romania – indeed virtually all the Soviet republics – once the immediate control of Moscow and the party was removed. It was naive to have expected otherwise, as the doors were opened to the free market and the instruments of the centrally controlled economies were put up for sale.
European leaders were also keen – in Bulgaria's case – to give support to the pro-Western Prime Minister, Sergei Stanishev, against his nationalist and anti-Western rivals. And so they have made the fatal error of saying to the new entrants that they could come in, but they would be expected to keep up their efforts to stamp out corruption once they had. And their efforts would be monitored.
Yesterday's decision to withhold £400m of aid to Bulgaria and to withdraw the right of two Bulgarian agencies to manage EU funds follows a series of damning reports on Bulgaria and Romania's efforts to control crime and corruption in the 18 months since they joined. Suspension of aid may serve to concentrate minds. It is unfair to say that nothing has been done to improve conditions in Bulgaria. In the end it will be the desire of the ordinary citizen to see cleaner government and the insistence of outside investors that business be clean which should bring about change. But, given the nature of power, it would be idle to expect dramatic results in the short term.
In the meantime there are two lessons for the Commission. One is that the business of doling out aid and leaving it to local agencies to disburse it must be better monitored. That is a lesson not just about new entrants but founding members, too. Recent investigations have shown widespread fraud in agricultural aid in Italy, France and Spain, with little real effort by the Commission to control it.
The second is equally pressing. With Turkey and Croatia pushing for entry and Serbia also keen to join, the conditions have to be set out and assessment made before entry. The political imperatives of expansion may be paramount, but never disregard the mundane, especially when it concerns money.