On 1st January 2018, Bulgaria assumed the presidency of the European Council, a post it will hold until 30th June this year. Over the same period in 2019, the post will be held by Romania. That these two countries are taking the reins over the next year and a half is no coincidence – the presidency of the Council is a means of raising the profile of each country within the EU as both push for integration into the Schengen Area.

According to the official website of the European Commission, ‘Bulgaria and Romania are currently in the process of joining the Schengen Area.’ This is the area comprising 26 European states that have officially abolished passport and all other types of border control with other Schengen states. This wording should raise many more questions than it presently does, first of which is: what does this process consist of?

Upon joining the European Union in 2007, both countries committed themselves to integration into the Schengen Area as a top priority. However, before accession is granted, the EU requires several key criteria to be met. These vary widely, ranging from ensuring the independence of the courts to tackling cross-border crime, but there is one issue that is all-pervasive and particularly problematic in Romania and Bulgaria: corruption.

In June 2011, both countries’ bids to join the Schengen Area were approved by the European Parliament. However, when their integration plans came before the Council of Ministers in September of the same year they were rejected due to shortcomings in anti-corruption measures.

Since then, ostensible efforts have been made in both countries to tackle corruption – many of which have garnered praise from EU officials and institutions. However, much of this praise comes in reaction to the unexamined reports provided by the states themselves, and there is much to suggest that EU officials take little notice of the means by which such results are procured.

In December last year, Bulgaria’s Parliament passed a law proposing the creation of a special anti-graft unit to investigate those occupying high public office. On January 2nd, a single day after the country had taken on the EU Council Presidency, Bulgaria’s own President Rumen Radev vetoed the new law. The following week, on January 11th, at the official celebration of Bulgaria’s EU Council Presidency, Jean-Claude Juncker announced to his audience ‘Your place is in Europe. And your place is in Schengen. And your place is in the euro.’ Perhaps wilfully – in any case woefully – Brussels is persistent in its ignorance of member states’ internal politics.

The EU’s Schengen accession criteria have been similarly misused by Romania. In the build-up to the Romanian presidency, the country’s anti-corruption directorate (or ‘DNA’) has made much noise about clamping down on corruption. However, commentators have questioned the legitimacy of this anti-corruption drive, condemning it as a fiction concocted for Brussels. In a report published last year, the Henry Jackson Society concluded that “Romania is falsifying the results of its anti-corruption drive in order to secure accession to the Schengen zone. The EU’s willingness to believe the convenient fiction that progress is being made risks exposing it to a form of political contagion.”

The think-tank found that in 2015 alone, Romania’s national anti-corruption directorate, the DNA, maintained 10,947 active cases, charged 1,258 individuals and secured convictions in 92% of its cases, all with a mere 131 prosecutors on its payroll.

In countries with more mature and better-resourced legal systems than that of Romania, conviction rates tend to fall in the range of 70-80%. The DNA, however, appears to have transcended these figures on an unprecedented scale. The reason is that the principal victim of this campaign has been the due process of justice itself.

Quite simply, many prosecutions are politically motivated. New Europe has previously documented this with cases such as that of businessman Gabriel Popoviciu, whose ownership of a plot of land in Bucharest (of which the state-owned university from which he acquired it still owns 49.882%) became a sudden interest of the authorities after Popoviciu turned it into the biggest real estate development in the country’s history, with average taxed revenues accounting for 11% of the region’s municipal budget and 1% of Romania’s GDP.

Accused of corruption, he has been prevented from submitting evidence, and his right to a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal – as established in Article 47 of the EU’s Charter of Rights – has been repeatedly violated. This has principally been the result of clandestine cooperation between prosecutors and the intelligence services. Romanian ambitions to satisfy EU criteria are being used as an excuse to purge or exploit high profile individuals at home.

When the matter of Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to Schengen was last discussed in November 2017, the Commission concluded by issuing instructions for improvement to each country. Romania received 12 instructions and Bulgaria received 17, including the need to secure more judicial independence, combat cross-border crime and fight corruption. Any decision regarding Schengen access was postponed for another year.

Since countries holding the presidency must act as ‘impartial mediators’, neither Bulgaria nor Romania will oversee the postponed vote. It is therefore likely to take place in the small window of opportunity between June and December of this year, when Austria holds the presidency.

This leaves the two Eastern European countries all of six months to ensure that no objections can be raised to their membership next time round, and this should be worrying. Given the Commission’s recent litany of instructions, accession this year seems like a tall order. In the light of last week’s Council of Europe report that Romania has met only two of 13 anti-corruption recommendations made last year, it seems like an impossibility.

In his annual State of the Union address in September last year, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared that “it is high time to bring Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area.” Since the European Union takes it upon itself to approve the standards by which corruption is fought in its member states – not simply encouraging them to engage in anti-corruption fights but making it legally binding for them to do so – then it is high time its leaders took notice of how those fights are conducted. If not, between now and the summer we will continue to witness the idealistic pursuit of greater integration trample the civil liberties of individuals.