Bulgaria must deliver concrete results in fighting corruption and reforming its judiciary, while Romania must also strive for more progress, the European Commission said Wednesday in its latest assessment of the two countries.
Both nations have been subjected to an unprecedented monitoring mechanism since they joined the European Union in 2007 because of major deficiencies in the rule of law.
Their failure to break free of Brussels' supervision has harmed the countries' chances of joining Schengen, the European border-free area.
Bucharest called Wednesday for an end to the EU's review process, while Sofia expressed commitment to press ahead with reforms.
Bulgaria's "biggest challenge" is the fight on high-level corruption and organized crime, the EU's executive found, while adding that the country's judicial reform strategy must also be put into action.
"2016 must be the year when Bulgarians feel progress on the ground," commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in a statement.
The commission noted that Sofia took "important steps" last year to put reform back on the agenda, following a period of political instability which "appeared to be stalling progress." But it warned that the country's anti-corruption strategy had faced "setbacks."
Bulgarian Justice Minister Ekaterina Zahrieva said the country has the "hope and will" to drive forward the reform agenda. "We have an action plan; we have clearly set deadlines," she added.
Romania received a more positive score sheet, with Timmermans praising the country for showing a "willingness to fight corruption and protect the independence of the judiciary."
But these efforts must be "stepped up," he added.
The commission noted that 2016 would be a "test year," for Romania, with senior judicial appointments coming up and elections - required after the last government stepped down amid corruption allegations - scheduled for November.
Bucharest said the country had made enough progress to be released from Brussels' scrutiny.
"In light of the positive conclusions of the report, we think that the conditions have been created to end the monitoring process," the Romanian government wrote in a statement.
However, a new assessment of developments in Bulgaria and Romania is expected to be issued in a year's time.
The monitoring mechanism is supposed to stay in place until the two countries have fully met EU benchmarks. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said last year that he would like to see the process end during his time in office. His current term ends in 2019.