BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union criticized Romania and Bulgaria on Wednesday for being too slow to reform their judicial systems or to combat corruption and organized crime. The move casts doubt on the two Balkan nations joining the borderless Schengen zone anytime soon.
The Netherlands said despite some progress in the two nations, they need to do more. In July, the Dutch plan to reassess the position that keeps the two nations out of the visa-free travel zone.
"It is a step forward, but more needs to be done," said Dutch Europe Minister Ben Knapen.
The European Commission said in two reports Wednesday that Romania and Bulgaria are still lagging in expectations five years after they joined the 27-nation EU.
The Netherlands has led opposition to the two Balkan nations joining Europe's borderless free-travel zone, arguing that would open the 25-nation zone to an increase in organized crime and corruption.
Finland also backed the Dutch position on Wednesday.
"A preliminary review of the reports indicates that there has been some concrete progress in both countries, but at the same time it looks like there are shortcomings and matters which require even significant action," Finnish Interior Minister Paivi Rasanen told The Associated Press in Helsinki. He declined to give details.
Within the Schengen zone there are no checks performed or papers required when people cross national borders.
The commission said "developments in Bulgaria over recent months point to a need for stronger action" after the report chided the nation for insufficiently dealing with reforms in the judicial and investigative sectors. It also called for "convincing results" in the fight against corruption and organized crime.
"Further efforts are needed during the coming months in order to demonstrate convincing results," the Commission said.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said the criticism was based mainly on accusations made by the opposition.
"Things that Bulgarians say of their own country in Brussels and Strasbourg, all of it is reflected in the report," Borisov told reporters. "I hope that we can unite as a nation by July and achieve a positive report," he said.
Romania was also criticized but its report highlighted some progress in the past months.
Knapen acknowledged some progress in Romania but insisted another report in July needed to show a similar willingness to work on the deficiencies before the Netherlands would change its position.
The free movement of people has been one of the EU's most cherished achievements and it would be a tangible advantage for citizens of Romania and Bulgaria.
The borderless travel dispute has already turned bitter. After the Dutch announced their opposition, Romania began blocking all flower imports from the Netherlands, saying the paperwork was not in order and the plants might contain "dangerous bacteria." The move was called the "tulip war."
Romania has said the Dutch opposition stems from the growing prominence of the anti-immigration Freedom Party, which has agreed to support the country's minority government in exchange for pledges on security and immigration.
Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki and Veselin Toshkov in Sofia contributed to this report
Raf Casert on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rcasert