Romania is facing its biggest wave of anti-government protests since 1989, while Bulgaria heads into its third parliamentary vote in four years. The two states joined the EU 10 years ago, but remain beset by corruption.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Bucharest this week after the Romanian government decided to decriminalize official misconduct and abuse of power, as long as the financial damage is valued at less than 200,000 lei (44,000 euros, $48,000). The measure, according to the protesters, aims to protect the chairman of the ruling party and many others from legal proceedings.
"The emergency decree basically gets over 100 high-level politicians off the hook for charges of official misconduct," Romanian journalist Laurentiu Colintineanu told DW. According to Colintineanu, the people were especially enraged by government passing the measure in secret late on Tuesday night and ignoring calls for debate in the parliament.
"It's like they were sitting inside the government building and at some point decided to go: 'In your face, people, we just passed it.' The crowd will not have it," he said.
The move could threaten hard-earned gains in the struggle against corruption, a painful issue for EU member Romania. A graft probe forced the then-prime minister Victor Ponta to resign in 2015, and many other high-ranking officials have been targeted by anti-corruption authorities. However, Ponta's Social Democratic Party (PSD) returned to power in December last year.
"The anti-corruption prosecutors' office put 1,250 people on trial over corruption charges in 2015 alone," Colintineanu said. "That includes one prime minister, five ministers, and 21 members of parliament."
The country was accepted to the EU in 2007, alongside Bulgaria, but both Eastern European states remain under a special bloc mechanism to help fight corruption and aid judicial reform. The so-called CVM (Co-operation and Verification Mechanism) was meant as a temporary measure, but the EU Commission maintains that neither Bucharest nor Sofia have fulfilled the requirements to have it lifted.
Bulgaria 'ineffective' against corruption
Unlike the Romanian government, Bulgaria currently faces no angry backlash from its citizens. However, the Balkan state saw an interim government take office last week, as the country is preparing for its third parliamentary election since 2013. The previous center-right cabinet resigned in November, following the election of pro-Russian President Rumen Radev.
Bulgaria is considered to be the poorest country in the EU, and burdened by even greater corruption than its northern neighbor.
In the CVM reports published last week, the European Commission decried Bulgaria for its "lack of a convincing track record of convictions in cases concerning high-level corruption or serious organized crime."
"In the early years after accession, Bulgaria undertook a number of legislative and institutional measures to address corruption," the EU officials said. "However, while early results seemed promising in some respects, these efforts have not brought about the necessary step-change in the fight against corruption."
"The overall institutional set-up to fight corruption in Bulgaria remains fragmented and therefore largely ineffective," they added.
'Advanced, not undone'
In turn, the European Commission praised the strides Romania made in fighting corruption, but stressed that any new regulations "with the effect of weakening or shrinking the scope of corruption as an offense" would trigger a reassessment.
On Thursday, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he was viewing the developments in Romania with "great concern."
"The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone," he said in a statement.
In Romania, a recently appointed minister resigned in protest and President Klaus Iohannis said he would take the decree to the Constitutional Court.
The EU found itself fending off a number of crises after the 2007 expansion, and some Western observers have lamented the decision to allow poor, ex-communist nations into the bloc with many issues still open.
However, the reporter Laurentiu Colintineanu says there can be no doubt that expansion improved both countries. Even with all the setbacks, Romania has still changed "tremendously" for the better, he explained.
"If Romania and Bulgaria hadn't joined the EU, today we would be like Ukraine," Colintineanu said. "The progress has been humongous and that is not up for debate - the proof is right there in the standard of living, and even in fighting corruption and organized crime."
"Progress may be slower than anyone of us would want, but it is there and this needs to be kept up," he added.