(AFP) – Jul 23, 2008
BRUSSELS (AFP) — The European Commission condemned Bulgaria on Wednesday for its failure to tackle corruption and bad management of EU funds and said it has frozen hundreds of millions of euros in aid money.
In two progress reports on Bulgarian efforts to fight corruption and use funds since it joined the EU in January 2007, the commission underlined that "urgent action is needed" before a deadline passes and the money disappears.
"The fight against high-level corruption and organised crime is not producing enough results," said chief spokesman Johannes Laitenberger. "While there has been movement on a few cases, many alleged cases go unpunished."
Over the poor use of EU funds, Laitenberger said that the commission had decided to withdraw the accreditation of two agencies handling the money for Sofia, and confirmed more than 500 million euros in aid had been frozen.
"Bulgaria is experiencing difficulties in certain programmes and has to demonstrate that sound financial management is in place," he said.
"The commission has taken the decision today to formalise the suspension of certain payments and to withdraw the accreditation of two government agencies in charge of managing these funds," he said.
He said that the commission, the European Union's executive arm, was prepared to reverse the decision "as soon as Bulgaria has taken the necessary corrective measures."
The frozen funds concern money granted to Bulgaria to help it prepare its EU membership and does not involve the billions of euros in structural aid it could qualify for to help finance major projects, like building infrastructure.
Around 250 million euros aimed at helping Sofia complete reforms and absorb financial assistance, disbursed by the two agencies, which had not been contracted out by them was put on hold.
Some 310 million euros had previously been blocked.
Some 115 million euros in money destined for roads were frozen, as well as 121 million euros in money earmarked for agricultural and rural development, a commission official said.
Bulgaria's access to a sizeable chunk of the funds expire in November and would be lost unless it can take the corrective action the commission requires before then, officials said.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev played down the criticism.
"The truth is that Bulgaria is learning, everybody is learning, to manage EU funds, and the procedures are complicated," he said in a televised press conference.
He said the reports should be seen as "a challenge to accomplish more work and lead the reforms to successful and more efficient results."
Since it joined the European Union last year, Bulgaria has remained under strict surveillance in several sectors: its justice system, management of EU funds, food safety and aviation security.
But while progress has been seen in the latter two, the others have been the constant focus of criticism in the European Union.
The new blow comes as a recent survey in Bulgaria showed that public confidence in the government, police, army and judiciary is waning rapidly and stands at its lowest ebb since the country became an EU member.
The two reports were far softer on Sofia than expected.
Draft versions, one seen by AFP and others leaked in the Bulgarian media, angering the commission, suggested that its failure to deal with corruption could hinder entry into the Schengen passport-free area and the eurozone.
But this language was toned down in the final reports.
Meanwhile, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International backed the stand taken in Brussels.
In a statement, it expressed "deep concern over high-level corruption, organised crime and mismanagement in Bulgaria, and supports the European Commission decision to freeze aid worth hundreds of millions of euros."
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