EU Values and Transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová on Thursday had to defend herself against robust criticism from MEPs who pressed Brussels to account for its muted response to Bulgaria’s rule of law failings.
Protesters have packed the streets of Sofia for two months amid a spiraling corruption crisis that has exposed the extent to which the Bulgarian judiciary has been politicized and hijacked by oligarchs for their own personal gain. Brussels is meant to monitor Bulgarian rule of law through a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, but this is roundly dismissed by the opposition and analysts as a failed approach that gave broadly positive reports while the situation deteriorated.
Jourová debated for more than an hour with MEPs from the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on the EU’s monitoring mechanism on the judiciary in Romania and Bulgaria. But the debate turned sour when some MEPs raised the issue of the anti-mafia demonstrations in Bulgaria.
“I sharply reject your accusation that I am an accomplice of … [Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko] Borissov,” the Czech retorted to Clare Daly, an Irish MEP from the far-left GUE group who attacked the Commission for being “complicit” in Bulgaria’s corruption. “Please, do not offend me like that,” Jourová replied.
Many of Borissov’s opponents accuse Brussels and Berlin of turning a blind eye to Bulgarian corruption because the prime minister is a key ally of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the center-right European People’s Party on the European stage. Jourová herself is a liberal.
“If democracy does not work bottom-up and top-down, the Commission cannot do much if the things go too wrong in the member state” — Věra Jourová, Values and Transparency Commissioner
Jourová, however, stressed the relative powerlessness of the Commission in a situation when problems permeate throughout an EU member country. “If democracy does not work bottom-up and top-down, the Commission cannot do much if the things go too wrong in the member state … We have to bear in mind what the Commission is and isn’t.”
Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik, however, had earlier stressed that the Commission was not using the full arsenal of tools at its disposal and could look to squeeze Sofia with budgetary restrictions or with infringement proceedings. The European Commission did cut Bulgaria’s cash in 2008, and one of the chief accusations against Bulgaria is that much of the EU funding disappears because of corruption.
The desperate state of the Bulgarian judiciary, and the EU’s inaction, became even clearer this week when Supreme Court of Cassation President Lozan Panov told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he reported to Brussels on the insincerity of reforms in the justice system but that EU subsidies continued to flow in and stoke corruption.
“In a normal country, as a judge, I would have to stay out of politics … But in our case I too must say: Yes, Bulgaria is a captured state,” Panov said. “That is something that European politics does not want to admit. Hungary and Poland are much talked about in Europe, but unfortunately Bulgaria isn’t.”
Jourová paid tribute to the current “vibrant debate in the Bulgarian society,” and insisted “the Commission continues to follow closely the political situation and the protests in Bulgaria.”
The Commission is planning to phase out the contentious CVM monitoring system, although Jourová made clear that the Commission thought Bulgaria still had outstanding questions to resolve on topics such as the unchecked power of the chief prosecutor. The big idea in Brussels is to shift to a new system of oversight called the “Rule of Law Report.” This would be applicable to all EU countries and Jourová said it would “provide a context for taking the monitoring further in the future” on Bulgaria.
Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola, one of the committee’s most influential members from the EPP party, hailed the EU’s efforts to build this new rule of law mechanism that would “identify and solve issues before we are faced with protests in different member states.”
But other MEPs were tougher on the EU’s response to the crisis in Bulgaria.
“I must say I think it’s an absolute disgrace that the Commission is sitting on the fence in this regard, you are complicit in the corruption, and it really isn’t good enough,” Daly said.
“Now the people are off their knees, we have mass arrests, people being beaten, pepper-sprayed, riot police without proper identification, reputable members of society being imprisoned, people on hunger strike and we talk about monitoring and progress,” she added.
Strik emphasized the “alarming situation,” and “constant decline of the rule of law in Bulgaria,” with pandemic corruption, and a chief prosecutor “that is far from independent, and under control of the government.” Strik said the EU is sending a “complete wrong signal” by saying it is now ready to close the CVM system.
“We really see a regression,” Strik said. “Now is not the time to say: ‘OK, look, we go to another system.’”
Additional reporting by Jakob Hanke