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Protests in Bulgaria: EU values, wherefore art thou?

The EU reaction to the continuing protests in Bulgaria has been quite ambiguous.

August 25, 2020 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

The first day of the protests in Bulgaria July 9th 2020. Photo: KGG1951 (cc) wikimedia.org

In my article ‘Bulgaria: will Borissov’s government survive this summer?’, I raised awareness of a series of corruption scandals which shook Bulgaria in 2020 and raised the eyebrows of Bulgarian civil society. Pictures of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov sleeping with exorbitant amounts of cash, leaked recordings of conversations in which he ordered who should be charged by the Prosecutor’s Office, whose authenticity was later proven by two independent forensic analyses, and an investigation into alleged money-laundering in Spain paint a rather gruesome picture of the deplorable state of the country’s rule of law. At the time of writing of the article, however, I was still pessimistic about the chances of mass protests erupting in Bulgaria for the mere reason that Bulgarians are notoriously patient with bad governments. Bulgaria, for instance, is the only former-communist country in Europe in which the communist regime fell under its own weight rather than because of a revolution.

On July 9th 2020 the last drop in the sea of discontent was provided in a raid against Bulgaria’s Presidency by Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office. President Rumen Radev is the only political opponent of Borissov who has a high position in the State and while Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic, a critical voice, albeit with limited influence, could be a nuisance for a government dedicated to autocratic policies. To many, the raid illustrates disregard for the separation of powers.

Thousands of Bulgarians, both right-wingers and left-wingers, have been protesting against Boyko Borissov’s government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, asking for their resignations and early elections for more than a month. Nevertheless, as the protesters’ demands are not being met, anger builds both against Borissov and against Brussels’ nonchalance.

Brussels’ guilt?

A recurring theme in my academic writing and media engagement is Brussels’ complicity with Boyko Borissov’s regime, which is most visible in the mishandling of Bulgaria’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). The accession negotiations of Bulgaria and Romania with the European Union (EU) did not go as planned. These countries were decoupled from other states in accession talks. Then the EU put unprecedented super safeguard clauses in their accession treaty, allowing the European Commission to delay accession if the countries did not meet the accession criteria before their admission date – January 1st 2007. Even though that indeed was the case, the Commission introduced the CVM as a means to help these countries catch up with others in the areas of rule of law and the fight against corruption.

This mechanism, however, seems to have been hijacked behind the scenes since Boyko Borissov is a valued member of the European People’s Party (EPP), the dominant party in the EU. Throughout the years the Commission remained blind to the harassment of judges, controversial law reforms undermining human rights, rampant corruption which was shown through diverse indices, such as the Rule of Law Index and the World Bank Governance Indicators, and an array of scandals in Bulgaria. It ignored one of the key structural challenges of Bulgaria’s justice system – a Prosecutor’s Office with a Soviet, vertical structure and excessive powers, which are not subjected to checks and balances and overshadows the courts. According to critics, this institution is a political puppet which is used to whitewash corrupt politicians and abuse opponents of the government. One may even dare say that reforms jeopardising the rule of law were marked off as progress in Bulgaria’s CVM.

Leading politicians did not spare compliments either. Joseph Daul, the former leader of the EPP, referred to Borissov as ‘the best chef d’Etat in Europe’. Frans Timmermans, whose portfolio includes overseeing the rule of law in the Juncker Commission, complimented Borissov on his fight against corruption when negotiating for his support to be nominated for Commission President. Even current Commission President Ursula von der Leyen endorsed Borissov’s policies on a visit to Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, the EU funds keep pouring in – I have estimated that Bulgaria is the largest recipient of EU funds when one factors in GDP. In other words, the EU has been financing an autocracy.

The autocrat is naked, but so are EU institutions

Considering the scale and length of protests, the silence of the European Commission and reaction of EU political parties seem striking. Not only has the Commission failed to release a formal position, which it has done in the past when EU members overtly assaulted the rule of law, but its spokespeople seem genuinely bothered when asked questions about the situation in Bulgaria at press briefings. In early August journalist Catherine Feore, who had plenty of queries and criticisms against the European Commission for ‘sitting on its hands’ and disregarding the fact that Bulgaria was not meeting its commitments to the EU, was told she was ignoring the ‘important work’ done by the Commission and that the Commission considered Bulgaria’s progress in the area of rule of law ‘sufficient’.

The responses by EU parties to the protests are somewhat puzzling, too. The only party with a formal position is the European Greens, who not only support the protests but also have criticised the positions of other EU parties. The European Greens are the only EU party which has had a firm stance on Bulgaria’s corruption, even publishing a highly critical report in 2018. The EPP is generally silent, with the exception of Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP at the European Parliament, who expressed his ‘full support’ for Borissov and his appreciation of his ‘fight against corruption’.

Meanwhile, as reported by Der Spiegel, for the Bulgarians protesting ‘[Borissov’s] name is synonymous with the entire political system, endemic corruption, injustice, the undermining of democracy, lack of transparency, abuse of power, nepotism and environmental destruction’. In principle, this is not the first time that Weber sees progress where Bulgarians have concerns. In 2018 he had praise for Borissov’s handling of migration at the EU’s external border while The Border, a documentary by journalist Elena Yoncheva, who became MEP in this European Parliament, exposed human trafficking channels protected by Bulgaria’s government.

Where do we go from here?

Bulgaria’s future is surely in the hands of voters and by the looks of it, protestors will not give up until their demands are met, despite the violence of Bulgaria’s police. There are new parties which are not currently represented in Parliament, which will likely meet the percentage barrier in future elections as shown by the latest social surveys. The latter also reveals that Borissov’s and his GERB party’s rating has plummeted.

Yet the EU’s dual standards vis-à-vis the rule of law, which have become visible in Bulgaria’s case, leave a very bitter taste. Bulgaria’s rule of law crisis seems one of a kind, as Borissov received an indulgence for his assault against the rule of law through the CVM. This is not just a problem for Bulgarians. Bulgaria’s government is essentially wasting EU money – for example, Guest House Gate revealed that Bulgarian politicians and their relatives built luxurious villas for personal use with money from the EU regional development fund. A country torn by rampant corruption is not a trustworthy EU member when it comes to cooperation in any area. Even further, Bulgaria’s crisis raises concerns about the European Commission’s capacity to properly monitor and evaluate the state of the rule of law in all EU member states, as it purports to do with the new much anticipated Rule of Law Mechanism.

Without realising it, the European Commission seems to undermine its own credibility for the sake of party politics. Many Bulgarians are beginning to wonder – why is Borissov so valuable to the EPP? Ironically, by protecting his autocracy for so long for the sake of seats at the European Parliament and a vote at Council, the EPP risks losing its influence in Bulgaria altogether. Moreover, sadly, the line between skepticism against Brussels and skepticism against the EU could be fine.

Dr. Radosveta Vassileva is a Bulgarian legal scholar whose research interests encompass EU law and comparative public and private law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.

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