War of words over European Commission report on Bulgaria
Presented with a scathing report by the European Commission on Bulgaria’s lack of progress in meeting EU justice and home affairs standards, the government sought to deflect the blame and made promises of an “action plan” in response while the opposition said that the report showed “fatigue, even despair” at Bulgaria’s performance.
The January 22 report was released as the latest in a series of reports under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism instituted for Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January 2007, to bring the two newcomers up to EU standards in the judiciary and the fight against organised crime and corruption.
The report is the first since July 2012 and thus covers the span of three governments – centre-right GERB, in office until March 2013, the two-month caretaker cabinet and the current ruling axis that came to power with the mandate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party towards the end of May 2013.
The report said overall progress by Bulgaria “has not been sufficient and remains fragile”.
Among its criticisms, the EC report made a clearly recognisable reference to the Delyan Peevski scandal in June 2013 that unleashed continuing widely-supported public protests demanding the resignation of the BSP government after the controversial MP and media mogul was given an abortive appointment as head of the State Agency for National Security.
Repeated controversies such as appointments having to be aborted due to integrity issues, the escape from justice of convicted leaders of organised crime and a succession of revelations about political influence on the judicial system have affected public confidence. There remain very few cases where crimes of corruption or organised crime have been brought to conclusion in court.
The report said that since July 2012, Bulgaria had taken “a few steps forward”.
“These are issues at the heart of the modernisation of Bulgarian society: for reform to succeed, it needs a consistent and coherent approach based on a broad consensus in Bulgarian society. The fact that this period included three different governments has not helped to build this consensus, though events have also illustrated a widespread public aspiration for reform.”
There had been some improvements in appointment procedures, some useful managerial steps by the Prosecutor General and some progress by the Supreme Judicial Council on the workload issue.
Like all of its predecessors, the report made a number of recommendations on judicial reform and against corruption and organised crime.
“Bulgaria now needs to speed up reform and to demonstrate a strong track record in all areas,” the EC said.
European Commission President Jose Barroso said, “This report shows that in Bulgaria there is a need to galvanise the forces in favour of reform and provide leadership. Core principles like the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary must be at the heart of a long-term strategy for reform. “A political commitment to this approach, as well as concrete and practical measures in the short term, is the best way to bring the process forward and accelerate progress towards the CVM benchmarks,” Barroso said.
According to a report by Bulgarian news agency BTA, EC spokesperson Mark Gray said on January 22 that the EC is confident that the current Bulgarian government will take seriously the Commission’s CVM progress report. Gray said that the report does not assess different persons, institutions or a single government. Reports are not characterised as being positive or negative, because the process is much more complex than that, he said.
Tomislav Donchev, who was EU funds minister in the GERB government, said that the report should not be read in a one-sided way and the party accepted what had been said about its time in government.
But he urged the current government to spend less time talking and more time reading to grasp the nuances of the report.
Donchev said that there was no way that the report would not translate into an increased focus on Bulgaria and the spending of EU funds being viewed “through a magnifying glass”.
GERB expected that the report would lead to more serious monitoring of the actions of Bulgaria.
Diana Kovacheva, justice minister at the close of the GERB government, said that the report was more critical and negative than the most recent reports. She noted the absence of a positive reference to political will, as had been expressed in CVM reports when GERB was in office.
Kovacheva said that the EC spoke of backsliding and a loss of confidence.
The past eight months (the time in office of the current government) had been wasted in regard to judicial reform, Kovacheva said.
Zinaida Zlatanova, current justice minister in the BSP government, and interior minister Tsvetlin Yovchev both spoke of coming up with an “action plan” in response to the report.
Zlatanova said that the most positive comments concerned the most recent months of the government in Bulgaria (presumably not a reference to, among others, the Peevski controversy) and claimed that there were “on the whole, a number of tendencies in the right direction such as the reduced pressure on the part of the executive branch of government on the judiciary system”.
Yovchev said, “I hope we will work out an action plan very soon, which will solve the problems outlined in the EC report and that the next report will state substantial progress has been made in all the fields that pose issues and that have been outlined in the report”.