Negotiations between Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and leaders of other parties on securing sufficient support from MPs for constitutional changes to open the way for judicial reform are being dogged by complications.
For the constitutional changes to be approved, the votes of at least 160 members of the 240-seat National Assembly, Bulgaria’s unicameral Parliament, are required.
There has been wrangling for weeks over different versions of the proposed changes, with more recent days seeing a new spanner in the works from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) – the third-largest party in Parliament and seen as a possible contributor to getting sufficient votes – suggesting throwing out all the versions and coming up with a completely new bill.
Borissov met the MRF on July 21, the second day of his series of meetings, with talks with MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan ending with no agreement on the party’s idea to table a wholly new bill drafted by the MRF.
Borissov said that he expected the talks to continue till at least the end of the week, cautioning that it would be difficult to achieve consensus.
Failure to achieve the constitutional reform would also mean failure to achieve judicial reform, Borissov said, adding that parties appeared tempted to go into the October 2015 mayoral and municipal elections with all major parties in confrontation rather than agreeing on constitutional reform.
He did not rule out the possibility of implementing an MRF proposal to convene a special sitting of Parliament in August to deal with the constitutional changes.
Work is being done on drafting a declaration to be put to Parliament for adoption on July 23 and the first-reading debate on the constitutional reform bill being held the following day.
On July 22, Borissov was scheduled to hold talks with opposition party the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the second-largest group in Parliament, and with the Bulgarian Democratic Centre, a minority parliamentary group.
On July 21, Borissov, after his talks with Mestan, held a three-way meeting with Mestan, Speaker Tsetka Tsacheva – a backer of the constitutional reform bill – and Radan Kanev, parliamentary group co-leader of the Reformist Bloc, the coalition that has been pushing hard on constitutional and judicial reform.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Borissov said that if efforts towards judicial reform failed, “our lagging behind Romania is guaranteed”.
This was an apparent reference not only to perceptions that Romania had done better in judicial reform and the fight against corruption than Bulgaria in the years since the two countries joined the European Union in 2007, but also to speculation that Romania might be admitted – even if gradually – to the EU’s Schengen zone ahead of Bulgaria.
Borisov said that he expected agreement on issues such as the Prosecutor-General being required to report to the National Assembly once a year, while judges and prosecutors had disagreements on the method to be used to elect judges, prosecutors and examining magistrates.
“They all believe that judges must nominate judges, prosecutors must nominate prosecutors and examining magistrates must nominate examining magistrates. The dividing line is how to elect them,” Borissov said.
On the first day of the series of talks, Borissov met Georgi Purvanov, leader of minority socialist breakaway party ABC, a party that supports Borissov’s coalition government as part of an October 2014 deal, and which has a Deputy Prime Minister as part of that cabinet.
But after the meeting with Purvanov, it emerged that agreement had been reached on only three of the proposed constitutional changes, although Borissov sought to portray this as a success on the grounds that before the meeting, ABC had opposed all the changes.
“I think that we can reach consensus on the strengthening of the role of the Inspectorate of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), the split of SJC into two colleges – judicial and prosecutor and direct suffrage of judges and prosecutors,” Borissov told journalists, according to a report by BTA. If adopted, these proposals, described by Borissov as “Plan B”, will give a strong impetus to career development and selection through competition.
“I will be grateful, if on Friday all parliamentary forces or part of them find the necessary consensus on the three main points. This will be a good sign and a step in the right direction both in regards to the Bulgarian society and our partners from Brussels in relation to the reports,” Borissov said.
Ahead of the meeting with the BSP, it was already clear that that party was opposed, seeing the constitutional amendments as an attempt to take control of the Supreme Judicial Council.
Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov, a member of the cabinet from the Reformist Bloc quota, was reported to have said that if judicial reform began to appear to have been emptied of substance, this would benefit no one. A day earlier, he said in a television interview that if every possibility for achieving judicial reform was exhausted, he would resign.
Ivanov said that the constitutional amendments were intended to reform the SJC and ensure that the selection of judges took place in the most honest way possible. The current method of selection of members of the SJC was very complicated, which hampered its effectiveness, he said.
Since joining the EU, Bulgaria, like Romania, has been subject to a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, intended to bring the two countries up to EU standards in justice and the fight against organised crime and corruption.
CVM reports on Bulgaria regularly have been critical and there is no sign currently that the mechanism will be removed.
Although technically unrelated to each other, the CVM reports that have found inadequacies in Bulgaria’s judiciary and in combating organised crime and corruption have been cited as reason to not admit the country to Schengen, in spite of the insistence of a succession of cabinet ministers in several governments that Bulgaria meets the technical requirements for membership of the visa zone.
Bulgaria’s judiciary also has been caught up in several months of turbulence, with allegations, resignations and initiations of prosecutions, with question marks over the judicial process in notable cases being exemplified by French ambassador Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes speaking publicly about “rotten apples” in Bulgaria’s judiciary.
The issue also has been taken up by civil society in Bulgaria, with a series of protests recently to back the initiative for judicial reform, in particular to gather the necessary support among MPs for the constitutional changes to be approved.
The latest in the series of demonstrations in support of judicial reform was scheduled to be held on July 22 at 8.15am, outside the Parliament building.
In a statement released by his office, head of state President Rossen Plevneliev said that he hoped that political forces in Parliament would “retain the established constructive approach in seeking solutions to change the constitution in order to improve the work of the judiciary”.
Judicial reform is a key national priority and there was no doubt that successful implementation required changes to the constitution, Plevneliev said.
He said that technical disputes regarding details should not be allowed to turn into insurmountable obstacles.
Success in the process would send a strong positive signal to Bulgarian citizens and the country’s European partners, but failure would make it extremely difficult for citizens to trust the institutions, and for Bulgaria to participate effectively in European structures, including accession to the Schengen area, Plevneliev said.
He called on political parties to take a non-partisan and nationally responsible approach “and use the coming days to find solutions and resolve differences where they still have them, in the interest of Bulgarian citizens and our European partners”.