Citing graft, EU cancels €220 million subsidy to Bulgaria(Stephen Castle, www.iht.com, 25.11.2008)The European Union on Tuesday took the unprecedented step of depriving Bulgaria of €220 million in funds, effectively declaring that the Balkan country was too corrupt and prone to fraud to receive the subsidies.
For the first time, a member of the 27-union bloc will completely forfeit money that it cannot be trusted to spend properly, reflecting concern among officials, diplomats and fraud investigators over the ability of the Bulgarian authorities to prevent billions of euros in European grants being siphoned off by organized crime.
The Bulgarian government, which had exuded confidence that Brussels would now entrust it with funds, first frozen in July, tried to put a bright face on what amounts to a substantial loss for one of the poorest economies in Europe.
Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, speaking in Berlin, said that Bulgaria - where the U.S. Embassy in Sofia has counted more than 125 contract killings in recent years - was implementing EU programs "in a very ambitious way," and noted tartly that membership "is not limited to justice and home affairs issues."
When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, many warned that the country was ill-prepared and the European Commission put in place special measures to monitor reforms.
Since then, Bulgaria and Romania - which joined the EU at the same time - have been criticized in several reports including one leaked document that said a "criminal company network" was skimming off subsidies.
In July, several tranches of EU cash, worth a total of €486 million, were suspended. It was €220 million, or $287 million, of that money - designated to modernize institutions - that was lost for good Tuesday when a funding deadline expired.
Millions - or even billions - more could go the same way if the Bulgarian government fails to improve controls. The country is supposed to receive about €11 billion in subsidies by 2013.
Meglena Plugchieva, deputy prime minister of Bulgaria, also in Berlin on Tuesday, pointed to "big efforts" and "concrete results" in fighting crime. The EU decision, she said, is "not a good sign to support reforms in Bulgaria."
Olli Rehn, European commissioner for enlargement, disagreed. Announcing the EU move, he said that assurances from Sofia had been insufficient. "Many of the measures," said Rehn, "are only promises of future action and have not yet delivered concrete results."
Rehn, who championed Bulgaria's membership in 2007, said the announcement was not "pleasant."
"It is not a punishment," Rehn said. "This is a decision we have taken in order to respect EU laws and rules."
The money involved had been allocated to Bulgaria to help it modernize, shake off its communist past and prepare for EU membership by overhauling its administration.
But distribution of the cash halted in July when the EU removed the official approval of two agencies in Bulgaria that process payments from Brussels. The EU has dispatched several different missions to Sofia since, and Bulgarian ministers had expressed confidence that money would now flow again.
"Time has run out," said a European Commission official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They were given warnings and extensive contact was made with the Bulgarian authorities. But they were not able to deliver on time."
Rehn said that "the risk of political interference" had not been fully acknowledged by the government in Sofia, which made it difficult to tackle the problems.
Connections between politicians and crime suspects in Bulgaria are well documented, and have recently been the subject of two detailed reports in the International Herald Tribune.
The Bulgarian interior minister, Rumen Petkov, resigned this year amid revelations that he had met organized crime figures.
In 2003 the finance minister, Milen Velchev, also quit after being photographed on the yacht of Ivan Todorov, who was suspected of involvement in smuggling and kidnapping and who was murdered in 2006.
In addition to the lost €220 million, an additional €340 million of pre-accession aid, under the so-called Phare program, is suspended. Agricultural support worth €121 million is also blocked. And €115 million destined for road construction is also on hold.
These sums are, however, small change by comparison with the funding that Bulgaria is due to get now that it is a full member of the European Union.
While about €11 billion has been earmarked for Bulgaria in regional aid and farm subsidies until 2013, Romania is slated to receive about €31 billion.
The Commission says it is determined to ensure that this funding is not lost through corruption. "In terms of the future money," the Commission official added, "we are undertaking more extensive auditing. We are looking to make sure that the structures are in place so that the authorities are able to cope with the significant amount of money that they will receive during the 2007-13 financial period."
Speaking to her domestic audience on Darik radio, Plugchieva sounded an angrier note than in Berlin. She said she was deeply disappointed and saddened, but also accused the EU of double standards, the Bulgarian news agency Novinite reported.
"Which EU country is free of corruption and has solved all its problems?" Plugchieva asked. "This approach of focusing only on the negative in Bulgaria and of negative assessment only of Bulgaria is unacceptable; I do not share it and I do not see it as a reflection of the EU spirit."
Worries about Bulgaria and Romania have cast a shadow over future expansion of the bloc. Elmar Brok, a senior center-right German member of the European Parliament said that it was vital to demonstrate to the European public that adequate controls are in place to protect taxpayers' money.
"You have to show that you are looking into such cases step by step," Brok said. "If money is raised and then it is lost in corruption then we have a problem with public opinion for future enlargement of the EU."
Блогът на Мартин Осиковски
26 ноември 2008
В Трибюн цитират обидената и изнервена Плугчиева, но на кого да имаме повече доверие: на въпросната изнервена и обидена Плугчиева или на хладната констатация, че "България е прекалено корумпирана", за да й бъде позволено да "злоупотребява" със субсидии?
етикети: антибългарски кампании